Why can’t we get an elected school board?

Published 12:10 am Saturday, August 22, 2020

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Natchez and Adams County need, deserve and want an elected school board.

If that’s the case, why don’t we have one?

The answer to that question is politics.

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The city’s board of aldermen and the county’s board of supervisors have gone on record as early as 2016 favoring an elected school board, as have the majority of residents of the city and county.

U.S. Rep. Sam Mims and the late Sen. Bob Dearing introduced bills in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that would allow an elected board here, but all died without any action taken on them.

At a legislative breakfast in 2019, state Rep. Robert Johnson, a Democrat of Natchez, said the legislation asking for an elected school board in Natchez proved too controversial.

Why is voting on school board members controversial? School board members receive and spend a tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars, yet the citizenry has no way of holding members accountable for how the board spends that money.

No one will tell us on the record what is stopping this legislation, but off the record we have been told many times former state Rep. Phillip West has lobbied effectively against elected school board members with the Black delegation in the state legislature each time the issue has come up.

In a story in The Democrat in February 2017, West said he was in favor of an elected school board. When I met him in our office shortly after moving back to Natchez in June 2019, I asked him about the issue. He said he was not against an elected school board, but he would not support one if the purpose of the move is to elect a school board that will not support the construction of a new high school.

There we have it.

The Natchez-Adams School District board is moving full steam ahead toward building a new high school on the site that is the referred to as the bean field and is located next to the current Natchez High School.

Voters turned down a bond issue in May 2017, which would have funded the construction of a new high school. When the school board announced it was going forward with a new high school anyway, Natchez resident Kevin Wilson filed a lawsuit, which held up construction of a new school until recently, when the school district settled with Wilson, now a member of the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

Further, some years prior voters voted overwhelmingly to construct a state-of-the-art recreational facility for baseball, softball and soccer on the same bean field site. That facility has not been constructed and millions of dollars in related commerce and taxes have been lost to other communities because of inaction.

As it stands now, we expect the school board to seek bids within the next couple of weeks for the construction of a new high school at the cost of $14 million and renovation of the current high school into a middle school for an additional $11 million.

I would love to see all of our students going to school in new, modern facilities. However, our school board has a poor track record in spending and efficiency. Natchez-Adams School District spends more on administration than most school districts, regardless of size, in the state.

That’s a fact. One wonders if simple tightening of the belt would allow for new facilities out of current or even less tax proceeds.

At a time when every business in our community is watching pennies and cutting expenses wherever possible, it does not seem the school board has done any work to question the taxpayer dollars it is spending.

Each time you pass it, let the bean field be a reminder that, at this stage, your voice and your vote do not count.

That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work. We need a coordinated effort as a community to make this change with our school board.

Jan Griffey is general manager of The Natchez Democrat. You may reach her at jan.griffey@natchezdemocrat.com or by calling 601-445-3627. Readers are invited to submit their opinions for publication.