SCHOOL BOARD: We have no intention of abandoning Robert Lewis, Frazier schools

Published 1:58 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2022

NATCHEZ — While almost no one came to offer suggestions for Robert Lewis Magnet School and Joseph Frazier Elementary School during a listening session the school board hosted last week, many showed up a week later when it came time for the school board to vote on its school transition plan on Tuesday.

The plan suggests eventually moving students out of both schools as the district works to consolidate its high school and middle schools on the Natchez High School campus, where a new high school is under construction and the renovation of the current high school is almost finished.

Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier, Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Irving and Adams County Board of Supervisors members Angela Hutchins and Ricky Gray all attended the meeting Tuesday, as did Joyce Arceneaux Mathis, a former Natchez Alderwoman who is the president of the NAACP’s Natchez chapter.

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Mathis raised her voice as she spoke on behalf of the NAACP to the school board about not closing the schools. She said they’re located in neighborhoods with residents who are predominantly Black and living in poverty.

“What we wanted was a smooth transition,” Mathis said. She named off a wide array functions the schools could be used for to combat poverty and help the unemployed find jobs. She said the schools could be used for skills training needed for firefighters, construction workers, barbers, photographers, seamstresses, florists or gardeners to name a few.

For Frazier, she said, “We don’t know what you can use that building out there for but there is something that can go in there. … Whatever happens to Frazier … we cannot let schools be closed down in predominantly minority neighborhoods. I don’t live on that street but I feel for them I guess because I’m crazy. I’ve been crazy for them my whole life.”

Several more spoke after Mathis in favor of keeping the schools open.

Robert Plummer, a resident of George West Boulevard, said he walks the street every day and didn’t want to see the school close down.

“If you are making progress to put the kids in better schools, that is good. But if you close them you need to have something to go in them. Vacant buildings don’t do anything but bring the community down. It’s good that you all are putting kids in better schools. We need that for our kids but we don’t need to hurt the community in the process of doing that,” he said.

Frazier said he didn’t want the two schools become like the former Sadie V. Thompson High School, which was left vacant when it closed.

“Once you close this school down, it’s going to be just like Thompson. The whole area, the Black community, is going to go right back into shambles. … If that school leaves, it’s going to get worse. … It’s like a slap in the face to the Black community,” Frazier said.

School board members responded by making it clear they have no intention of leaving the schools empty. The point of last week’s listening session was to obtain public input on how the schools could be repurposed, board member Brenda Robinson, Ph.D., said.

“Everybody is talking about schools closing. Don’t focus on that. Focus on how those buildings can be used,” she said.

Board member Phillip West agreed.

“We have no intention of abandoning those facilities entirely,” he said. “It’s our intention to avoid that.”

Natchez Adams School District Superintendent Fred Butcher said they had discussed making one of the schools a school for art. Butcher said the movie industry could motivate students to pursue courses offered there, which could “broaden their perspective” on the many jobs needed in the industry.

The school board approved that plan and is looking at prospects for the other school, he said.

“It has never been our intent to close the schools but to repurpose them,” he said. “We’re pretty close to having a plan for one school and we’re working on another.”

Board member Diane Bunch said the board has been directing funds from the federal COVID-19 relief package and seeking grants to use for financing their plans for the schools.

“We have tried to direct the ESSER money as much as we can to meet our objectives,” Bunch said. “We share those hopes.”

As the board adopted the transition plan unanimously on Tuesday, West said they did so with the understanding that it is a “living document” subject to being changed.

The tentative plan, which was introduced in April, suggests moving Frazier students to the current Morgantown Middle School, which would become Morgantown Elementary. Students at Robert Lewis and Morgantown Middle School would be merged into the new Natchez Middle School located at the current Natchez High School. Natchez Freshman Academy and Natchez High School students would be merged into the new Natchez High School and would be temporarily placed at the current Robert Lewis Magnet School until the new high school is finished. The Ombudsman alternative school would also be relocated to the current Natchez Freshman Academy.

Attendees at Tuesday’s meeting also asked about Susie B. West and Morgantown schools. Butcher said the board had discussed renovating them. “But it won’t happen before next school year,” he added. “Everything is at a snail’s pace right now. Getting materials and workmen is a real challenge. It is on the drawing board and it’s going to take a while.”