Revised plan for schools gets tentative OK

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2004

[3/20/04]The community school plan, with modifications that would cut costs, has received tentative approval from the U.S. Justice Department, the public school superintendent said after returning from meetings in Washington, D.C., this week.

“After discussing the lack of support from a few of our elected officials, it was felt that the students of Warren County would best be served by proceeding with K-6 community schools initiative without the new school or reopening Bovina at this time,” said James Price, superintendent of the 9,000-student Vicksburg Warren School District.

He and Jim Chaney, the school district’s attorney, traveled to Washington, D.C., Wednesday. They had informal meetings that night and met formally with justice department officials on Thursday before returning to Vicksburg. The Justice Department has had control over district lines since the 1960s.

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Price and Chaney met with Pauline Miller, an attorney in the civil rights division of the justice department.

Miller fielded comments to the department’s public affairs office, which did not return calls.

Chaney said the meeting was productive, but would not make more specific comments.

Price’s plan, which this year received approval by a majority of the district’s faculty, staff and board of trustees and about 4,000 residents, included:

Building an elementary inside city limits;

Opening Bovina as an elementary. Bovina currently houses the Center for Alternative Programs. Price said that the program will be moved to the Youth Court Assistant Center at the former Grove Street Elementary School, and plans for the Bovina school are now undecided;

Returning all elementaries to K-6 schools; and

Redrawing district lines to ensure racial balance.

Under this revised proposal, the intermediate program will be eliminated, and the two mega schools Dana Road and Sherman Avenue will be elementary schools. Currently, all fifth-and sixth-graders attend Vicksburg Intermediate, which is housed at Dana Road, or Warren Central Intermediate, which is housed at Sherman Avenue. The two schools also currently house K-4 students.

When the vote was taken to the board of trustees, Zelmarine Murphy of District 2 and Betty Tolliver of District 3 voted against the plan. And City of Vicksburg North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young told the board she opposed the plan.

Price said the plan changed because of a lack of support from those officials.

“I put it all on the table, and after studying the information, news reports and documents, it was clearly mandated from the public, faculty and staff and administration to move forward with the initiative,” he said. “It was not clear that there was the same level of support from all elected officials.”

Murphy has said she opposed the plan because her constituents oppose it. She and Tolliver cited the $10.5 million pricetag Price has attached to the plan. That money was to be used largely for construction of the new school.

Murphy has asked that she not be contacted for comment during work hours, and Tolliver could not be reached.

Price said by not building a new school, the district’s cost for the plan would be nil.

He, too, said funding for construction was a concern because of a possible lack of money at the state level.

“The proposition of a new school is not completely dead, it’s just being put aside until we have a better understanding of how much money it will take to operate from local funds,” Price said.

A Mississippi Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s recommendation for an estimated $161 million cut in the state’s education allocation would mean about a $3.3 million shortage for the local district.

The revised proposal will come before the board in its April meeting, Price said. If the revised plan is approved, administrators will file a motion to change the district’s current setup for final approval from the Justice Department.

Under current conditions, parents choose one of three elementary schools in their school zone for children to attend, with school officials having the final say to ensure racial balance. That plan, called School Choice, was implemented in 1999, when the district closed five community elementary schools and opened two mega-elementary schools, on Dana Road and Sherman Avenue.