Natchez performing arts facility improvements receive state approval

Published 10:16 am Friday, June 28, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Natchez-Adams School District officials are moving forward with contract negotiations to begin restoring two district buildings for use as performing arts facilities.

The school board vice president Phillip West told board members Tuesday that the Mississippi Department of Education has signed off on projects allowing the former Robert Lewis Middle School and Steckler Multipurpose Building to be restored with COVID-19 relief funds.

School officials have attempted to align Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money allocated by the federal CARES Act with their goals to update those buildings to use as performing arts facilities, but were unsure if that was an allowable use of the funds without MDE approval.

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Superintendent Zandra McDonald Green said Tuesday that the projects could partly be paid for by ESSER funds since it would make more space to socially distance at practice and performances.

“We are currently using the Steckler Building for music and band instruction and this approval is going to allow us to make certain that the construction is going to support more spacing to mitigate the spread of the virus, because that’s what our funds are supposed to do,” Green said.

Green added that new band equipment would need to be purchased separately from those projects at another time.

Per spending regulations, a portion of ESSER funds is earmarked for school building needs that “reduce risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards.”

“This is something we’ve worked really hard to get approved and a lot of us think that it will be beneficial to the children and to the community,” West said.

He made a motion to negotiate a contract with the Jackson architecture firm M3A to begin working on the projects.

The firm is also responsible for the design of the new high school, which was completed in July 2023. West said the school board needed to act quickly in order to utilize more than $5 million remaining in ESSER funds, which have to be allocated by a Sept 30 deadline.

“We need to move as speedily as possible in order to make sure that we don’t lose out in order to step into a first-class facility,” he said.

West specifically thanked state Rep. Angela Cockerham for her work in getting the funds approved for use on the performing arts facilities.

In other matters during Tuesday’s school board meeting, the school board opened bids on leases for 16th-section public school trust lands primarily used for hunting camps and timber.

School Board Attorney Bruce Kuehnle said the law allows the current lessee of the land to match the highest bidder. The school board may also opt to hold a public auction starting with the highest bid if there are three or more bidders present and willing to participate.

Of the seven tracks of land open for bid, two tracks received a single bid from the current lessee, including one 438-acre track for $30.50 per acre or $13,359 annually and one 752-acre track for $28 per acre or $21,056 annually.

Four tracks received bids from the current lessee and one competing bid. Of those, a 442-acre track was awarded for $25.00 per acre or $11,051.75 to the lessee Joel Strahand; a 220-acre track was awarded to Lake Mary Planting Co. for $45.91 per acre or $10,100.20 annually; and a 90.15-acre track was awarded to Gaude for $13 per acre or $1,171.95 annually.

One track of 157.7 acres received a total of five bidders.

However, only one of the five bidders was willing to compete in an auction and the current lessee Mr. Ashley was willing to match the highest bid from Marlin LLC for $63.42 per acre, or a total of $10,000 annually.