Dept. of Education signs off on school merger Featured


North Bolivar Consolidated School District has been given the green light from the Mississippi Department of Education to move from five schools to three. The case has been heard in multiple cities over the course of three court dates since January when the North Bolivar Consolidated School Board voted to merge the two high schools and the middle school. JFK United, a group of alumni and Mound Bayou residents, filed legal action to stop the merger and on July 20, Chancellor W.M. Sanders ruled: "The Petitioner's motion of preliminary and permanent injunctive relief is herby granted until such time as the North Bolivar Consolidated School District seeks and obtains approval of its reconfiguration plan changing John F. Kennedy Memorial High School into a vocational and technical center from the Mississippi Board of Education as required by Miss. Code Ann. Section 37-7-113." This did not mean that the district was prevented from consolidating the high schools but rather that its ability to do so was placed on hold until it received word from the Department of Education. The statute mentioned in the ruling has used in other cases but is generally applied to situations where the district or districts involved seeks to alter the boundaries of the district; it states that: “Notwithstanding any of the foregoing provisions, it is hereby expressly provided that no order of the school board reorganizing, abolishing or altering any school district, whether same be taken with or without a petition therefor, shall be final unless and until said proposed reorganization, alteration or abolition shall be submitted to and approved by the State Board of Education. In the event the proposed action shall be disapproved by the State Board of Education, the same shall be void and of no effect. In the event of the filing of any petitions with the school board under the provisions of said sections, the school board shall verify same and make a determination of whether same are signed by the requisite number of qualified electors. The finding of the school board upon such question shall be final and conclusive for the purpose of the submission of said matter to the State Board of Education and the approval or disapproval of the action by said board.” MDE Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vandeford wrote the district, "the district does not require MDE approval to consolidate the middle and high schools." It cited a precedent set by the attorney general's office on Feb. 15, 199, and referenced a case from Wayne County, which covered a similar situation. The district there planned to combine high schools due to budget concerns and lowered enrollment. Some residents in the county petitioned to prevent this consolidation referencing the same statute (37-7-113). The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that because the district was reassigning students within the district to a different campus and not altering the district boundaries the decision was up to the school board and not the state. Vandeford’s letter explained, "Decisions to close or reconfigure schools are thus within the sound discretion of local school boards. The MDE does not review or approve decisions of local school boards to close and / or reconfigure schools unless a school district's corporate structure or boundaries are altered implicating Miss. Code Ann 37-7-113. The MDE is unaware of any aspect of the District's plan altering its corporate structure or geographical boundaries, thus there is no MDE approval required." The council for the petitioners, JFK United, has already filled for appeal in the Mississippi Supreme Court. "At this time there is currently no stay in place. The petitioners are trying to get one put into place by the chancery court in Bolivar County until the appeal is heard by the Supreme Court," said school district attorney John S. Hooks. "The Petitioner's have not sited any legal precedent for their appeal to the Supreme Court. They have presented statements to the court that are reckless and irresponsible. We have filed a counter suit to oppose their motion for a stay," Hooks continued. As of presstime, The Bolivar Commercial did not have a response from Debra M. Giles, attorney for JFK United. The district announced at the school board meeting on Thursday that the first day of school for students would be Aug. 16. All students, grades 7-12, will wear royal blue or navy shirts and khaki pants. At a meeting on Jan. 22, the members of school board voted to close John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in the coming year and move students to Broad Street High School in Shelby. According to Smith, the district spends about 95 percent of its budget on personnel, which is higher than the norm. At the January meeting, Smith said, "We have roughly, nearly $28 million worth of needs with a bonding capacity of $4 million," and it would take over $5 million just to renovate each school. It was decide Broad Street would become the high school since it had the most recent work done on the building. Prior to graduation in May, emergency repairs were made to the JFK roof following a storm and a machine from Birmingham, AL, was brought in to remove the moisture and try to save the floor. Students in the district have already voted for a new name, colors and mascots. The new high school located at Broad Street High School in Shelby will become North Side High School. The school colors will be blue and orange with the mascot as the Gator. "These decisions were not made lightly or easily," said Smith in an earlier story. "Both schools will be losing their old identities and Shelby Middle School is closed completely."

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