Six candidates interview for Natchez-Adams school board position; aldermen asked to leave meeting to avoid open meetings violation

Published 6:52 pm Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

NATCHEZ — Six people vying for a Natchez-Adams school board seat currently held by Brenda M. Robinson were interviewed by the City of Natchez’s Education Committee meeting on Tuesday, but not without a brief interruption while one alderman was asked to leave.

Robinson is reapplying for her seat on the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees and is challenged by five others also interested in the position. Other applicants include Mary Lessley, Jessica D. Lewis, Chantel L. Marsaw, Augusta Smith, and Shalanda M. White.

Each of them was interviewed Tuesday evening by the City of Natchez’s Education Committee which includes Aldermen Valencia Hall, Sarah Carter-Smith and Dan Dillard.

Email newsletter signup

Alderwoman Felicia Bridgewater-Irving arrived shortly after Lessley’s interview and sat in the audience of the meeting through three more interviews before being asked to leave because, according to state law, the aldermen could not have a quorum present without having called a special meeting.

Irving said she wished to live stream the meeting because it was advertised to the public that the meeting would be viewable on Facebook and it was not.

“It said it would be live-streamed. That was what was shared earlier and this is a public meeting,” she said. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls because the public said they had information to either live-stream or watch it.”

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said he consulted the city attorney about whether Irving could attend without participating in the meeting and was told she would have to leave.

“According to the laws of Mississippi, we can’t have more than three (aldermen) here be constitutes a quorum,” Gibson said. “If there is someone here who like to continue live-streaming because Alderwoman, at this time we’re going to have to ask you to leave. We can’t entertain discussion because we can’t violate the law of the State of Mississippi.”

Irving left but also left her phone behind while she waited outside to record the meeting.

Each committee member asked the applicants the same questions pertaining to what makes them interested in the position, what they feel are the needs of the school district and what their visions for the school district are.


Mary Lessley

Lessley said her love of children and her community motivated her to apply. She has lived in Natchez for 57 years and volunteered with a lot of organizations, building many connections that could help the district, she said. She has been a champion of fundraisers, is heavily involved in organizing musical and theatrical productions through her involvement with the Natchez Festival of Music board of directors, has educational experience as a past teacher and has financial and business sense from working as a bookkeeper for her husband Jim’s pharmacy.

“These are the skills that I think that I could bring to the table for the school board,” Lessley said. “Strategic skills, operational skills and financial skills. … I feel that by having lived here for 57 years I’m acquainted and recognized by many key contact persons in this community and I feel that is very important when you’re trying to get something implemented — knowing whom to contact to help you make that happen.”

Hall asked what Lessley feels are the district’s academic needs.

“I feel that we need more certified teachers and less non-certified teachers,” she said.

Dillard asked the applicants how they would balance the district’s needs with the taxpayers’ burden.

Lessley acknowledged that teachers are in high demand throughout the state and that the salary here “is not that great.” However, she said the school district owns timber land, also called 16th section lands, to enhance teacher salaries.

“A lot of people would say salary is the most important thing but to me the most important thing is that we have quality, certified educators who genuinely love what they’re doing and are willing to go through the extra effort, to stay after school to help the students who need help,” she said.


Jessica D. Lewis

Lewis said her work in the youth court system has allowed her to “see there is a need to have some involvement from the school board” to address the behaviors of the children in the community. As a past children’s therapist, Lewis said she also has seen the need for mental health services for children in the community.

“Most of the children that come in have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) or some type of learning disability and that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. That is something I’m very well-educated in. I have a Master’s in mental health education so I identify with some of the kids that come in.”

Other issues Lewis said she has noticed come from her being a parent of three school-age children.

“I have three children in the school district and they come home sometimes and give me stories about what happened in the classroom. I see that they have a lot of downtime. Classroom management and professional development are concerns of mine.”

Lewis said her vision is to see the district “continue to grow in the direction that it’s going.”

As for easing the taxpayers’ burden, Lewis said better schools would draw more job opportunities and people coming to live in Natchez so that taxes wouldn’t be as high.

She said the district’s responsibility is “to make sure that each child receives an education that is fair, firm and consistent and that individuals understand what their tax dollars are paying for and that they see positive results.”


Brenda M. Robinson

As a current board member, Robinson said she also wants to see the district’s recently acquired B-rating increase to an A.

Robinson was first appointed to the NASD Board of Trustees in 2016 but has been involved in the school district in various capacities since 2003, as a parent and leader in Booster Club and anti-bullying programs.

In 2016 the district’s accountability rating was an F, she said.

“Currently, through leadership and my input on the board, we are now a B school district. That is a first. … I would like to see the school district move to an A status. When you have a good educational system, that draws families to relocate here, businesses to relocate here and industries. A good educational system will promote Natchez and Adams County.”

Robinson said she holds a Master’s degree in guidance counseling, a Doctorate in curriculum development and instruction, and has been trained in professional development, all of which have prepared her for the role she is in.

As a 4-H youth educator from 2010 to 2016, she has taught at each school various programs including anti-bullying, peer pressure, teen pregnancy and STD prevention, career and workforce development and work ethics, she said.

“I know what to look for in a classroom based on my educational background.”

Second to reaching an A-rating, Robinson said her vision is to “help the school district have national standing as a high-performing, exemplary school district.”

She also wants to establish a Center for the Arts that would train students in performing arts and other creative fields in preparation for Natchez’s growing film industry.

“Who knows? If we could get this off the ground, we could have people right here in Natchez and Adams County that could be the next big stars,” she said.

To Dillard’s question about the burden on taxpayers, she said, “It’s very important that we adhere to the taxpayers, but at the same time the state allows a certain percentage that the school district can ask for. As long as I have been on the school board, the school district has not exceeded what the state asked for. … I’m hoping the taxpayers are happy that we are no longer an F district but a B district.”

Augusta Smith

Smith said her desire to serve on the school board stems from her experiences as a parent.

She is the mother of a six-year-old and five-year-old and taught both about entrepreneurship from a young age. Her daughter, Kennisen, became the CEO of a candle-making business from their family kitchen at age 7 and employed the help of her younger sister.

“There are many things that I see our children need besides being rated by numbers or by grade. Our children need someone who is tangible who can reach out and who has understanding,” she said. “Entrepreneurship should be considered within the educational department. We are living in a time where technology is advancing rather quickly and children are at the front of that. My six-year-old can navigate the telephone better than anyone I know. We have to get ahead of that and the way we do that is by reaching them where they are.”

Smith said she feels there is a shortage of professionals who are able to accommodate the needs of children.

“If we do not continue education for ourselves as an educator, it’s virtually impossible for us to further educate our children,” she said. “My vision for education in our community is to teach as much as I can, as often as I can, to as young as I can. I don’t believe education should start at 6 years old. … Both of my children are entrepreneurs and I think that is something that we can incorporate into our schools — something to motivate them to be hopeful for their future.”

Shalanda M. White

White said she is a former educator of Natchez Adams School District now teaching in Jefferson County. She also has a son who is a sophomore at Natchez Early College.

“I know what Natchez needs; it’s just a matter of helping the district go in the direction it needs to go in,” she said, which is “making sure that curriculum is aligned for the students and getting them ready for state tests,” and “making sure teachers have the support” they need to meet their students’ needs.

She said another thing NASD needs is more parental involvement, especially at the middle school level.

“Elementary has a strong PTA. When you get to middle school it kind of falls off and in high school, it picks back up. We need to get the community to understand the importance of their collaboration in their children’s education.”

She said open meetings are a tool that school board members should use to hear their taxpayers’ concerns, answer their questions and be heard about how they are spending public funds to help their children.

Chantel L. Marsaw

Marsaw, also an educator in NASD, said her primary motivation for applying to the school board is “to help in any way that I can.”

“Teaching in the school district, I was surprised by things I noticed that the students didn’t know as 12th graders,” she said.

As a taxpayer herself, Marsaw said what taxpayers want is to see that “what you’re doing is actually needed” and will benefit the children somehow.

Her goals include improving parental involvement and making sure that “children are successfully completing the courses” before they leave school.

“I hate to see someone leave and go out into the real world unprepared,” she said. “Public schools are competing with everybody. I feel like we should all be making sure they are prepared before they leave because we’re failing them if we’re not preparing them.”