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Board approves community schools, 3-2

District 2 Trustee Zelmarine Murphy, above, the longest-serving member of the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees, speaks out against the community school proposal Wednesday night.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[2/26/04]A makeover of elementary zones will move forward, but without the support of two of the five elected trustees of the Vicksburg Warren School District.

“I voted the way my constituents told me to vote,” District 2 Trustee Zelmarine Murphy said. “It’s not my brain, it’s theirs.”

Murphy, senior in tenure on the board and former president, was joined by District 3 Trustee Betty Tolliver, in dissenting on Superintendent James Price’s community schools plan. They also voted against exploring the idea when Price first asked permission to do so in December.

“It appears the vote was a racial issue, and it should not be that at all,” said District 4 Trustee Jan Daigre, who voted in favor of the plan. Murphy and Tolliver are black. Daigre, District 1 Trustee Chad Barrett and District 5 Trustee Kay Aasand are white. “That puts a tremendous blemish on what should be a very positive plan for this community, and that’s unfortunate,” she said.

The Vicksburg Warren School District, created by combining formerly separate city and county schools in 1986, operates under a desegregation order overseen by the U.S. Justice Department. Wednesday’s 3-2 vote means the plan will be put in written form and sent to federal officials who must gauge whether it has any racially discriminatory effect before giving their approval.

“Unfortunately, the first thing the Justice Department is going to look at is the vote of this board,” Daigre said. “The 3-2 vote along racial lines is going to lend negative connotations where there shouldn’t be because we’re trying to do the best thing for our children.”

Murphy and Tolliver did not mention race. They said they voted against the proposal because of questions from their constituents, including how the district would pay for the $10.5 million shift and how new zone lines would be drawn.

In written materials provided to faculty, staff and then to the public, Price has said a 1.64-mill increase in property taxes would be needed, mostly to pay for building a new elementary. On a $50,000 home, that would mean a tax increase of $8.20 per year for the next 20 years.

A public vote and permission from the Warren County Board of Supervisors, the local taxing authority for schools and county government, is not required since the increase would be less than 3 mills.

Price has also said shifting from the choice-based plans to zones might be shelved if there’s a shortfall of money from state sources.

Vicksburg North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young spoke at the meeting and said public hearings should have been held.

“Something as important as this needs to come before the community,” she said. “The people of District 2 and District 3 didn’t fill out the forms because they don’t understand what’s going on,” she said.

Price has not said publicly how zone lines would be drawn, but indicated drawing them would have been premature.

“It seems logical to ask the community if they want community schools and then draw the lines for submission to the Justice Department for approval,” Price said.

“I’m dismayed that we move forward now to the Justice Department without a unified board,” Price said. “I believe that we know what the community wishes us to do, and we’ll do our very best to get that done.”

Principals at all 13 district schools endorsed the community schools, as did about 90 percent of faculty members who stated a preference. In the community survey, nearly 4,000 responses were received and nearly 90 percent support was also reported.