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Madison Parish voters to decide schools future

Math teacher Lakesha Batty, left, eighth-grader Dustin Harvey and seventh-grader Samone Davis stand in front of the football stadium where classes are held at Tallulah Junior High.(Brian Loden The Vicksburg Post)

[10/27/04]TALLULAH The broken desk marks the spot.

In the breezeway that connects the modular buildings that comprise Tallulah Junior High School, math teacher Lakesha Batty directs a visitor to the desk that distinguishes a particular small patch of dirt.

That’s where the sewage backs up, she said.

“When you go to lunch, you can smell it,” said 14-year-old eighth-grader Dustin Harvey.

Voters in Madison Parish will decide Tuesday whether to raise taxes to replace four high schools and junior high schools, including Tallulah Junior High, with a new school for 1,200 students in grades 6-12.

The tax election has two parts: an $18.5 million bond issue and a 1-cent sales tax increase. The sales tax would expire in 25 years.

The bonds would be paid for by raising property taxes. Madison Parish’s current millage rate is 10.03 mills, well below the Louisiana average of 40.

The increase would increase taxes on a $100,000 home an additional $22.33 in 2005 and another $54.80 in 2007. After that year, residents would pay a total of $74.78 in new property tax every year until the 25-year bond was paid off.

The bond issue is subject to the Louisiana Homestead Exemption, which means that homes valued at $75,000 or less are not subject to new property taxes.

The schools to be replaced are Tallulah and McCall high schools and Tallulah and McCall junior highs. Each facility has a litany of problems that, students, teachers and administrators say, makes a new school a necessity.

In each of the four schools, classroom overcrowding, poor lighting, shoddy restrooms and out-of-date materials are the norm.

A dozen boys, many with dreams of making McCall High School’s celebrated basketball team, gather in the weight room also known as the men’s locker room to lift weights during during physical education class. The room has two barbells, one bench with stuffing coming out of it and a squat machine.

The showers don’t work. Even if they did, there’s no lighting.

In the school of 350 students, there is only one restroom for each gender. Both have doors missing from the stalls and frequent overflows.

“I will hold it until I go home,” said Dawn Kline, a 17-year-old senior. Not everyone can, and lines form. Teachers say that means time out of class.

“They come back and have to ask to go back” hoping for a shorter line, said English teacher Nancy Johnson.

The classrooms aren’t much better.

Most of the blackboards are so worn that erasing them is futile. The school’s air conditioning and heating systems rarely work. English teacher Ruthie Magee estimated that her class spends three to four weeks out of her classroom because it’s too uncomfortable.

Roof leaks are frequent and happen all around the school. The smell of mildew permeates hallways and classrooms.

Tallulah High smells better, but its infrastructure is similar to McCall High. Exposed nails line the inside of railing that has been ripped from the stairwell. Lights flicker and fixtures hang precariously in the halls. Students say even their lockers are a safety hazard.

“They fell on on my friend last year,” said 15-year-old sophomore A.J. Scamp.

Tenth-grader Jessica Puckett, 15, pointed out the cobwebs and unused, dusty cabinets in a chemistry classroom.

“If you wanted to make a horror movie, it would be filmed in this classroom,” she said.

Tallulah high and junior high schools share a gym. However, students are often forced to a small patch of grass next to the school because the gym is being used. (Teachers are hesitant to let students play in the high school’s large front yard because of its proximity to Bayou Drive, a heavily used road.)

“There’s not really a P.E. area when you can play real sports,” said 12-year-old seventh-grader Samone Davis.

Puckett said the hardwood floors inside the school, sloped in many places, held recreational possibilities.

“If you had some roller skates, you could skate (here),” Puckett said. Teachers would probably frown on the idea, Scamp said.

The two junior highs are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Tallulah Junior High School is in the worst condition of any of the schools, perhaps because it was never meant to be permanent school. The school’s 215 students are in 11 modular classrooms that were hastily put in place after the school burned six years ago.

“Some people are embarrassed. It’s like a trailer school here,” Harvey said.

Inside the buildings, space is so tight in each classroom that many teachers are unable to teach while facing the students because students’ desks take up every inch of space. Most teachers’ lecterns sit to the side.

Storage space is nonexistent, so teachers are often forced to put large items outside the buildings to wait for maintenance personnel to pick up. Some, like the broken desk, have littered the school grounds for weeks.

Exposed wiring hangs both inside and outside the building, well within reach of the average junior high student.

Roof leaks are a constant problem. Batty described a “waterfall” that runs down the back of her classroom every time it rains. Between the sewage and the leaks, classrooms interruptions are frequent, she said.

McCall Junior High School is in the best condition of the four schools, but even it has serious problems. As with the other three schools, the restrooms are in deplorable condition. Toilet seats are broken and many faucets don’t work.

Eighth-grader Nelda Bailey, 13, indignantly noted that the girls’ bathrooms for sixth and seventh-graders had mirrors, but eighth-grade girls did without.

“We don’t even have a paper towel rack,” Bailey said.

Hallway lighting is one step above darkness, but the classrooms are bright enough, especially on a sunny day.

The school’s cafeteria struggles to seat all the students during lunch. Principal Dennis Redden would like the cafeteria to be able to offer more than one meal option. A salad bar would be great, he said.

Bailey said she’d love to have a study hallsomething she said her cousin in the Vicksburg Warren School District has.

Eighth-grader Eric Ross, who is taller than 6 feet and has the look of a future basketball star, wants the tax election to pass for one reason. Two, actually: the two gyms (one is a combined auditorium/gym) the new school will have.

He looked longingly at the blueprint for the new school, which hangs in all four schools.

“It’d be great,” Ross said.