Consolidation plans argued in federal court

By Amanda McBride
The Choctaw Plaindealer

How the Choctaw County School District should be consolidated is
still an unanswered question, as of press time Monday.

The CCSD (or district) and the Department of Justice presented their
plans and evidence to Senior Judge Glen H. Davidson, in federal
court, on April 2. The hearing lasted for seven hours with no
decision that day.

Opening the hearing, Judge Davidson stated, “Let’s cut to the chase.
Show me your evidence.”

In the opening statement, Holmes Adams, with Adams and Reese in
Ridgeland, and attorney for the CCSD said the district’s plan is to
leave all schools the same except moving 7-12 grades at Weir
Attendance Center to Ackerman High School and that this would create
“near perfect desegregation.”
He said the cost savings to the district would be in transportation
and personnel reorganization.

Kathleen Devine, attorney for the Department of Justice (DOJ),
opening statement began by addressing the court.

“This court faces a fork in the road for the Choctaw County School
District’s road to unitary status…” She said the court must choose
between two plans, the DOJ plan or the CCSD’s plan. Devine said the
DOJ plan is to create one district wide middle school and one
district wide high school which would create perfect desegregation.

When asked by Judge Davidson, if the DOJ had considered
transportation costs of at least 150 kids, she responded, “Costs
don’t really matter when one plan is fatally flawed.”

The judge then asked Devine, “If they (district) don’t have the
resources to operate, how’s that work?” She said the district must
make it work.

Choctaw County Superintendent Glen Beard, Jr. was the first to
testify in the hearing. He was on the stand for three hours.

Beard was first questioned by Adams, the district’s attorney. After
establishing Beard’s background of growing up and graduating from WAC
and living in the French Camp attendance zone, and background on the
current schools, he moved on to discussing the history of percentages
of white and blacks in the district from 1970 to today.

In 1970-1971 the Choctaw County School District consolidated white
and black students with grades 1-6 at the current Ackerman High
School and grades 7-12 at the current Ackerman Elementary School. The
grades were switched to what is today in 1974.

When the schools desegregated, the total enrollment was 1,921
students with 42 percent black and 58 percent white.

The CCSD added kindergarten in 1985 and pre-kindergarten in 1999.

Adams, by testimony from Beard, said there has been a decrease of 387
or 20 percent students in the CCSD from 1970 to 2013. This school
year, 2012-2013, has 1,534 students enrolled with 35 percent black,
63 percent white and 2 percent other.

Adams also asked Beard questions that explained students that attend
French Camp Elementary, that are dorm students at French Camp Academy
are named guardians of those students and therefore are enrolled in
FCE in grades PreK-8. The district receives state funds for those
students as well as all students attending school in the CCSD.

Financial situation
By answering questions from Adams, Beard explained how the district’s
fund shortage was created. He said the CCSD was shorted $1.5 million
in 2012 after the Choctaw County Board of Supervisors realized that
one of the power plants would not come off their fee in lieu
agreement as expected. These funds were already included in the
district’s budget.

When asked Beard said the district addressing this shortage or gap by
closely monitoring expenditures including purchases and “used
reserved funds to plug the hole.” And also by using reserves to fill
the gap.

In early 2012 the district learned that the funds from the power
plant would be delayed another year and this created another $1.5
million shortfall for the district. Beard said in April 2012, he
learned from the Board of Supervisors that the district would only
receive $900,000 in fee in lieu funds, not the $1.5 million as
expected. Beard said this is when the district began looking at a
modification (or consolidation) plan.

Answering questions from Judge Davidson, Beard stated the district
hopes to receive the promised $1.5 million in January 2014.

“The school district is at the mercy of the Board of Supervisors for
this money,” said Beard.

The judge asked Beard, “If you (district) had received the money in
2012, you would not be here?” Beard responded yes.

On the stand, Beard also stated that the district must maintain a
balance of $750,000 in fund balance, by state law, or the state
Department of Education will take over.

Beard later testified that the district is only allowed to raise
taxes three percent each year. This would bring in approximately
$800,000 a year for the district. He said this is not enough to fill
the financial gap.

Consolidation plans
Beard recommended the first consolidation plan to the Choctaw County
School Board in June 2012. This plan was to have a county wide middle
school, grades 6-8,at WAC, county wide high school grades 7-12, at
AHS and to have the elementary schools PreK-5 grades at AES and FCE.
The School Board approved this plan in a 3-2 vote.

Then in October 2012, Beard recommended a different plan to the
board. This plan is the current plan of moving grades 7-12 at WAC to
AHS (referred to as the district plan). The board approved this plan
in a 4-0 vote.

In March 2013, the board approved to move forward with their second
plan in a 4-1 vote.

Adams asked Beard why recommend the changes in the consolidation plan.
“Finances,” said Beard. He added that he board went with the plan
that “would allow us the greatest amount of savings.” The district
plans to save $1.2 million annually with their plan.

The second plan would also allow high school students at WAC more
elective courses and extracurricular activities.

Beard testified later that transportation costs with the first
consolidation plan were also a factor in changing to the second plan.
He said the district is required to abide by the 30 mile rule and the
first plan could allow students in the northern part of the county to
attend school outside of Choctaw County.

Beard said the 30 mile rule is that a student cannot be on a bus more
than 30 miles from their home to their school or they could choose to
attend another school.

On the cross examination by Devine, (DOJ attorney), Beard said the
district may use the space at WAC, if 7-12 grades are moved to AHS,
for staff development training, parent center and possibly moving the
district’s alternative school from AHS to WAC and “other things of
that nature.”

Devine asked him why these plans were not concrete plans.

“Well ma’am, the district has not concrete plans for anything because
we are here (court) to find out the concrete plans,” said Beard.

She also asked him if the district had considered moving the
attendance zone lines to increase enrollment at WAC. Beard responded,
“It would be a nightmare.”

The district called Dr. Michelle Larabee, district assistant
superintendent, as a witness. In her testimony, she said with the DOJ
consolidation plan, it would require the district to add 10 new bus
routes and they would need to purchase 11 more busses. She said it
would cost $964,000 to purchase the busses plus they district would
have to hire nine more long route bus drivers and one more short
route driver at an added cost of at least $12,000. She added with the
additional routes it would cost $40,000 more in fuel each year, plus
an additional $1,300 per bus, per year for insurance. To implement
the DOJ plan it would cost the district $982,000.

Larabee also testified about possible personnel or reduction in force
savings. She said with the district’s plan, they could cut 16
certified position and 9 non-certified positions that would equal a
savings of $1.2 million a year.

She said with the DOJ plan, the district could cut 12 certified
positions and 2 non-certified positions with a savings of $610,000 a
year.

Larabee was also questioned about the facilities at WAC. By answering
questions, she said that WAC would not hold all the students in the
DOJ plan plus there is no junior high library or band hall and it
would be one classroom short. Larabee also said there would be
overcrowding in restrooms and the size of the cafeteria (seats 150)
would cause shorter breakfast and lunch times.

French Camp/Tri-County District
Superintendent Beard testified in the federal court hearing that the
district does not want to change French Camp Elementary because of
the legislative law on the Tri-County District and it would lead to
losing students at FCE.

The Tri-County District was established by MS Code 37-7-315 allowing
students in Attala and Montgomery Counties,that live near the Choctaw
County line, to legally attend French Camp Elementary. Any changes to
the Tri-County district would require a majority vote by all three
school boards.

If there were any changes to the Tri-County District this would allow
Attala and Montgomery a chance to have students in this district
attend schools in their county. Beard said this included
approximately 45 students. He said, when testifying, that letters
were sent to the school boards of both counties asking about the Tri-
County agreement. Beard said both responded, “They said they won’t
address it until we get a court decision.”

But questioning from Devine, Beard also said he personally has never
seen the agreement between the three counties but there are documents
in school board meeting minutes that support it and the state statute.

In answering questions, by Devine (DOJ attorney), Beard said the
district only receives state funds to educate students from Attala
and Montgomery Counties and FCA. He also explained that FCA students
in 7-8 grades attend WAC for ICE (technology) courses.

Beard said boarding students at FCA are considered residents of the
county and therefore are allowed to attend school at FCE.

Devine made sure to point out, by questioning Beard, that few
students from FCE attend high school in the district. Since 2010,
only five high school students from FCE have attended WAC.

DOJ Expert witness
The Department of Justice called their desegregation expert witness,
Leonard Stevens. The DOJ asked him to analyze the CCSD modification
plan, especially student assignment, and to develop and alternative
plan if needed to further desegregation. To do this analysis, Stevens
said he used the district’s court motion to modify the school plans
and their enrollment data.
Stevens created the DOJ plan and he said he based “closely from the
district’s June and October plans.”

By answering questions, he said that he feels strongly that all
middle school grades (6-8) should be consolidated district wide.

Stevens said that his plan, the DOJ plan, moves all schools within in
plus or minus 15 percent of the desegregation numbers.

He also testified that with the district’s plan it would put all the
burden of consolidation on the black community and said it was
“inequitable.”

Stevens testified that the district’s goal should be to desegregate
as much as possible. He said the district has “inverted priorities”
if their goal is financial savings.

Stevens testified that is his chief concern is that Weir is left a
racially identifiable school, the burden on the black community and
that the Weir campus is dealt with different than the other two
campuses and this has an adverse affect on the Weir community.

During his testimony, he said he did not do a financial or
transportation analysis and that he was not asked to do so.

A district attorney asked Stevens if the district cannot afford a
plan that is practical, how is that practical.

“I would expect the district to come up with the funds because
desegregation is the law,” said Stevens.

Other witnesses
The district also called Joe Canepa, developer, of the transportation
software Lynx as a witness. He testified that his company developed
bus transportation routes for the CCSD. His company analyzed data
submitted from the district and the Golden Triangle Planning and
Development District to create the shortest route for each student
from their home to their school.

The Department of Justice also called Joe L. Gant to testify. In his
testimony, he said he was in favor of the CCSD’s first plan because
the burden was on all communities and that it left a school at each
community. He said the community of Weir “felt like we were being
pick on” in the district’s second plan.