Steve Rogers

About Steve Rogers

Assistant News Director/Assignment Editor; degree in finance and administration from Yale University; 35 years experience in journalism.

Judge Weighs Choctaw Schools Options

CHOCTAW COUNTY, Miss. (WCBI) — A federal judge’s decision could determine much of the financial future for the Choctaw County school district.

Judge Glen Davidson heard seven hours of testimony today from Choctaw Superintendent Glenn Beard and others about how and why the district reached a school merger plan that would create one high school in the county.

The superintendent testified the district’s problems began in earnest in January 2012 — just days after he took office — when it learned an expected $1.2 million tax payment from Choctaw Electric Generators wasn’t going to happen. Instead, the company would continue to pay the $900,00 fee-in-lieu payment it had been making instead of $2.1 million.

The district cut costs and dug into its reserves and banked on the company making the payment in January 2013. That didn’t happen again, throwing the district’s budget further into trouble. The district had learned of the shortfall last year and began preparing school merger plans to cut costs and preserve its dwindling reserves.

“”That’s right,” Beard responded when Judge Mills noted, “We wouldn’t be here if those payments had been made in January 2012 like you expected.”

Beard says the county’s proposal will save more than a million dollars a year in personnel and operations cost. He said a competing plan by the U.S. Department of Justice would actually cost the district about $600,000 because additional transportation costs would eat up personnel savings by creating a countywide middle school in Weir and elementary schools in French Camp and Ackerman.

He also said maintaining elementary schools in French Camp, Weir and Ackerman would avoid busing young children long distances and improve education by keeping them in their communities. Meanwhile, having a centralized grades 7-12 school in Ackerman — and removing those older grades from Weir — would improve academic opportunities for the majority black Weir school because Weir students would have access to more vocational and technical classes and Advanced Placement courses at Ackerman. Currently, AP classes aren’t offered at Weir because of the cost and the number of students interested. Weir students who want to take vo-tech classes must travel by bus to Ackerman daily for classes, often meaning they have to decide between those classes and extracurricular activities.

The Justice Department claims the school district’s plan has a disproportionate negative impact on minority students.

But during his testimony, Beard noted the president of the Choctaw County NAACP at one point objected to one merger proposal because it involved busing young children from Weir to other schools.

Davidson must decide because the district is under a 40-year-old desegregation plan designed to make sure education opportunities are equal for whites and minorities.

The judge gave attorneys for both sides until Monday to file their findings of fact and then he will rule. The school district has said it needs a ruling as soon as possible to let teachers know by April 15 whether their contracts will be renewed.