Judge leans in favor of school bonds

Published 11:31 pm Wednesday, April 25, 2018

NATCHEZ — Adams County Chancery Court Judge Vincent Davis denied a motion Wednesday to dismiss the Natchez-Adams School District’s request for $9 million in bonds — with the caveat that the defense could raise the issue again — and ultimately set a deadline next month for final arguments on objections to the district’s plans to raise $34 million for a building project. After seven hours in court, Davis gave the attorneys present until 5 p.m. May 18 to present final arguments to the court — before which time he would not make a decision on the matters presented in court, which included two issues: the borrowing of $9 million by means of a tax increase to Adams County residents, and a $25 million lease agreement with the Natchez-Adams School District.

The district intends to use those funds to build a new high school and renovate many existing buildings, after years of citing upkeep and design concerns with the current facilities.

Adams County residents filed more than 450 objections to the two issues in February, most of them stating they were against the measure because “the registered voters/taxpayers of Adams County spoke against the NASD borrowing money in a Special Election in May 2017.”

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The primary objector, Kevin Wilson, was not present at Wednesday’s hearing because of a spinal surgery, his lawyer, Paul Koerber said.

A request for a continuance until Wilson could be present was made, Koerber said, but Davis denied the motion.

Wednesday’s hearing included discussion of potentially altered documents, an invalid bond validation and the possibility of Russian interference in voter rolls in Adams County.

The courtroom was full Wednesday with a crowd of school bond supporters filling seats to the judge’s left and an abundance of people opposed to the measure sitting to the right.

Many of the school bond supporters wore stickers with the phrase, “Stand up for public schools.”

One of those people, Natchez resident Gwendolyn Brandt, said after the hearing that she was happy with how it turned out.

“I’m all for building the new public schools,” said Brandt, who has several nieces and nephews enrolled in the district. “If we don’t have good schools, no one will come here. We have to invest in our community. I think it went well.”

Attorneys accounted for six of the people filling the humid courtroom, and Davis invited any of the officials to remove their blazers at their leisure — after a short recess for lunch, many of the lawyers took him up on the offer.

First Davis took up the issue of the 3-mill tax increase — which would provide the district funding for the approximately $9 million in bonds it seeksAttorneys asked each witness to pore through binders of documents — some several inches thick — proving or disproving the discrepancies Wilson’s lawyer described.

The primary points of contention between attorneys were whether the state bond attorney was provided with the appropriate information to validate the bond request, whether the number of voters required was correct and the incorrect statement of a date on a resolution.

Lawyers spent well over two hours debating whether an incorrect statement in the original resolution announcing the board’s intention to request the $9 million bond was a typo.

In a meeting at the end of June, the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees approved a resolution of intent stating that they would seek a bond.

Before seeking the bond, however, the district had to publish the resolution of intent and allow time for taxpayers to procure a petition.

The notice was published on July 5 and July 12.

Wilson’s attorney Arthur Jernigan pointed out that in the transcript given to the state bond attorney, the board’s signed resolution stated that any petition must be filed before 4 p.m. on July 11, whereas the public notice published in The Natchez Democrat listed July 20.

“Somebody changed that resolution, didn’t they?” Jernigan asked the first witness, Spencer Flatgard, state bond attorney.

The opposing argument, provided by the school district’s attorney V. Warren Greenlee, was that this change in the date between the resolution and the public notice was merely a correction of a typo, or a “scrivener’s error.”

As such, Greenlee said the school district was allowed to correct the error before publication.

Jernigan, however, said the board should have held another specially called meeting to approve a resolution with the correct dates.

Jernigan also questioned whether the packet given to the state bond attorney contained the appropriate information for him to determine the validity of the request.

A copy of the resolution declaring the intent of the board to request the bond was included in the vast collection of documents the school board submitted to the state bond attorney, but the minutes for that meeting were not included, Jernigan said.

Attorney for the school district Tony Gaylor said that the resolution should be considered as part of the amendments as an attachment and said the Flatgard had no need for the full minutes of the meeting and all of its minutia.

While testifying, state bond attorney Flatgard said he validated the bond request on the basis of the resolution and did not need the minutes of the meeting, but Jernigan disagreed.

“A school board … they can only act by virtue of what’s contained in their minutes,” Jernigan said during his questioning of Flatgard.  “Those minutes need to be accurate and they need to indicate the board was validly in session and … those kinds of matters, right?”

“Whether every word is accurate in the minutes, I don’t give an opinion,” Flatgard said.

Koerber spent more than an hour questioning the validity of the base number of voters in Adams County, with the intent of bringing the necessary percentage of votes on the petition to counter the $9 million in tax notes.

Objectors had to garner a petition containing 20 percent of Adams County voters’ signatures in order to stop the board from requesting the tax notes.

Koerber brought Adams County Election Commissioner Larry Gardner to the stand and asked him about a letter Mississippi U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson sent to Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman concerning the antivirus software Kaspersky Lab.

The letter intimates that the antivirus software is susceptible to interference after the Department of Homeland Security found ties between the software company and Russia.

Since this was the antivirus system used in Adams County for the voter rolls system, Koerber said the base number of voters in Adams County could be compromised.

Without knowing the actual number of voters in Adams County, Koerber said, it would be impossible to tell if the petition taxpayers signed did or did not meet 20 percent.

“It was a warning given out based on counter intelligence,” Koerber said. “The integrity of the system is in question.”

To that line of questioning — that the voter rolls could in some way be inaccurate — the school district’s defense offered no rebuttal, though lawyers did raise several objections to the relevance of the question.

The majority of the meeting focused on the tax notes for $9 million bond. Only Flatgard took the stand in relation to the $25 million lease agreement, and the questions pertaining to that agreement were few.

Lawyers will electronically submit their final arguments to Davis, after which he will make a final decision on the two issues.