City OKs resolution to transfer bean field to school district

Published 12:04 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017

NATCHEZ — Natchez aldermen passed a motion Tuesday to support the transfer of city land to the Natchez Adams School District for construction of a new school building.

The decision came after an hour-and-a-half-long conversation that climaxed with raised voices and one alderman walking out of the meeting.

Mayor Darryl Grennell  said the motion was not an official transfer, but rather a declaration that the board supports donating the land to the school.

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“It’s going to happen,” Grennell said. “We just want to do it right.”

The first motion to officially transfer the bean field to the Natchez-Adams School District was tabled by a motion from Alderman Dan Dillard.

In a roll call vote, the motion to defer the decision until the board conducts a special meeting with a public forum was evenly split, with three votes in favor and three votes opposed.

Grennell broke the tie with a vote to table the discussion.

Grennell said certain legal aspects of the land transfer that had to be worked out before the board could officially transfer the land.

Though the issue of a land transfer was first brought up nearly a year ago, Grennell said the school board had only officially requested to transfer the land this month, which is why the legal aspects of the issue only came to light in this meeting.

The school district seeks the land to allow it to build a new high school building adjacent to the existing high school and then renovate the existing building into a middle school.

The plan is part of a district building plan that would build a new high school and renovate several other schools. The district put a measure on a countywide ballot in May seeking approval of a tax increase to fund the plan. The measure failed, but the school district found another way to fund the proposal and continue to move forward.

The property in question is part of three parcels the city acquired in 2015 after approximately two decades of lobbying the federal government for the land. For many years, the National Park Service owned the property and planned to end the Natchez Trace Parkway on the property. Those plans later changed and the Trace was terminated at the intersection with Liberty Road.

Known as the “bean field” because it was long used just for farming, the site in more recent years was earmarked for a city-county recreation complex that has never materialized. The site is adjacent to the current Natchez High School campus on Seargent. S. Prentiss Drive.

The building plan has been a heated one since the May election and the district’s plan to move away in spite of voters rejecting the tax increase to fund it.

After the aldermen and mayor levied multiple questions concerning middle schools in the district to member of the school board Tuesday night, former mayor and current school board member Phillip West took the microphone.

“Let me say something,” West said. “I can’t just sit here. Clearly you all had a discussion and decided to vote and table it. Let me just point out to you that this isn’t the first time this has ever happened in this county … last time we had no hearings. We had no legal mumbo jumbo.”

West then asked the board why such a delay was being made in transferring the land.

“If you don’t care about the education of children in this school system, then you’re taking the right position,” West said. “Most of your children abandoned this school because they didn’t want to go to school with black kids.”

Grennell explained that the bean field would in fact be transferred to the school district, but only after the legalities of the situation were straightened out.

“We just want to make sure it’s done correctly,” Grennell said. “One of the things that the board of aldermen requested is when we get ready to get rid of these properties, we should have a public meeting.”

Grennell said he would hold this public forum before officially transferring the land.

Dillard addressed West’s statements.

“I’m not one of those people who are against building the school,” Dillard said. “When you refer to me as one of those people, I get a little offended. I was not one of ‘ya’ll.’ I supported this school system going in, whether you were in the voting booth with me or not.”

After several minutes, the conversation devolved into a heated exchange between the two men.

“We know what we’re doing,” West said.

“No you don’t,” Dillard said.

After a few more retorts, Dillard stood up, whispered something inaudible into West’s ear and walked out of the room. He did not return.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis initially moved to officially transfer the land to the school and voted against tabling the discussion.

“We can kick this around about test scores,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.  “If educators had the answer, it would be finished and scores would be up. What we can figure out is how to provide a safe environment for students to go to school in.”

Arceneaux-Mathis said people in Natchez with money had power. Those powerful people, she said, had to decide now how they would support education in Adams County.

“I’ve been on this battlefield a long time,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “The people have to say ‘enough is enough.’ We need to build racial relations in this city.

“We have to come together on this. It’s got to be the whole story. The children are the place to start.”

Following more exchanges between members of the board and aldermen, Grennell called for a motion to support the donation of the land to the Natchez-Adams School District.

It passed unanimously — with Dillard absent.

“The final motion — that was all we wanted,” West said. “No roadblocks.”

Superintendent Fred Butcher said the passage of the motion was, at least, a sign of hope for the school district.