Tension halts supervisors on school board action

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, August 8, 2017

NATCHEZ — Adams County supervisors discussed, but took no action Monday to ask appointed members of the Natchez-Adams School Board to reorganize into an elected entity.

Discussion occurred after resident Kevin Wilson announced he had filed a bill of exceptions against the school board’s borrowing $9 million for a building program and numerous other members of the community argued in favor of the school’s plan.

Wilson was an organizer of a failed attempt last month to send the $9 million loan to voters for approval.

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The petitioners’ concern is the $9 million bond would be paid for through limited tax note, which would likely require a 3-mill increase. Petitioners have said residents voted down a tax increase in May when the district’s $35 million bond request was on a special ballot.

Supervisors President Mike Lazarus had said he intended to ask for a motion to request the school board to reorganize itself after Supervisors Board Attorney Scott Slover found a statute that could potentially allow the school board to vote to reorganize itself from an appointed to elected body.

Lazarus said the city and county have, year after year, sent requests to the Mississippi Legislature to make the school board an elected body since school board members have the power to raise taxes. Lazarus said in 2018, the issue is supposed to come up in the Legislature and reportedly could pass.

Lazarus said if the school board were to vote now, it could potentially save taxpayers approximately $50,000 on a special election, since the matter could go to the special election already set for Nov. 7.

However, when Lazarus met resistance, the District 1 supervisor said he decided to not push the issue.

“The board did not want to go that route,” he said. “We don’t need bad press now. A split vote would send the wrong message.”

District 4 Supervisor Ricky Gray said he did not agree with sending a letter to the school board, and District 3 Supervisor Angela Hutchins said to let it go through the Legislature.

Gray said he was under the impression the board was trying to keep the peace on an issue that has shown how divided the community is along racial lines. Gray said in his mind asking this right now would just add fuel to the fire.

Further, Gray said even if supervisors made the request, the school board would not have to act. Gray said questions also still remain on whether the school board could legally reorganize itself in that matter.

Mississippi School Boards Association Executive Director Mike Waldrop said last week he was unaware of a school board ever changing the way it was selected. Waldrop said he did not think the school board could reorganize itself from an appointed to elected body.

Slover stood by his opinion that the school board could change the way it was selected.

Earlier in the meeting, Gray pointed out to Wilson that despite the school board’s asking for more than $400,000 on top of its previous year’s request, the millage rate would actually be going down from 53.05 to 51.63 thanks to assessed values going up.

Wilson said if assessments went up, then taxes also went up.

“That is creative accounting,” Wilson said.

Lazarus said, however, a good chunk of the assessment increase was actually Von Drehle coming onto the tax rolls and new housing developments in Beau Pre and off U.S. 61.

Wilson said he is aware of the new developments because he is in the business of building new houses.

“I am part of that,” he said. “A lot of people think I am someone off the street, but I own a lot of property in Adams County, thousands of acres.”

Lazarus said investments in the community like Wilson’s needed to continue. Lazarus also said the racial division in the community is driving away other potential business.

“We are killing ourselves,” Lazarus said.

Wilson said increasingly higher taxes were also killing the community.

Wilson said he was just trying to shine a light on the tax issue and he wanted to see accountability for the money pumped into the school system. Wilson said he thinks the system is over budget, over staffed and underperforming.

“The school board needs to run the system like a business,” he said. “We have 700 employees and 3,500 students. I think that ratio is way over anyone else in the state.”

Wilson said the issue has been blown out of proportion after school board member and former Natchez mayor Phillip West made comments toward petitioners at a school board meeting last month.

West accused the petitioners of having racist motivations.

Wilson said West then proceeded to file charges against his son and then later at an NAACP meeting, Wilson said West was swearing and making fun of the petitioners.

“I don’t think that was the best way to do that,” Wilson said. “That is when it really started getting out of hand.”

Several Natchez residents stood to defend West, including longtime Natchez basketball coach Willie Woods.

“I have known him all my life, and he is not racist,” Woods said. “If I do something to wrong a white person, Phillip is not going to agree with me. He is going to do the right thing. His whole family is the same way.”

Woods said West had the floor when petitioners interrupted him. Woods said West did not interrupt the petitioners when they were speaking.

Woods said if people did not think this school board issue was about race, they were kidding themselves.

“I have been here a long time in Natchez,” Woods said. “We do have this problem. If we are ever going to come together, this is the time to come together. The train is steady moving.”

Javarrea Jones said West is a jewel in the black community, but Jones said supervisors made a mistake in picking him for the school board because of his controversial history.

Jones said instead of West the county should have selected someone for the board who would look at cutting costs.

Jones said he has no doubt the children need a new school, but in his mind the board needed a fresh perspective, more willing to look at data and come up with a better plan.

“At the end of the day, those kids are hurting,” Jones said. “Everyone is looking for someone to blame. I blame y’all (supervisors).”