Time merged city, county districts|[08/12/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2007

Decades of tradition disappeared when the Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District and Warren County Public Schools ceased to exist July 1, 1987.

In its place arose the Vicksburg Warren School District, one of few countywide consolidated school districts in Mississippi and, with 9,200 students, the sixth-largest in the state.

Today, 20 years later, some controversy lingers, but most agree the community is better off.

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&#8220It was an idea that had been tossed around for quite some time,” said Jonas Caldwell, a member of the consolidation advisory committee, formed to provide community feedback to the VWSD board.

Consolidation took about a year to orchestrate. Another group of about 15 people – the city, county and new school district administrations – also met regularly to design the new entity and ensure a smooth, gradual transition. School administration, for example, was combined in 1987.

Students and teachers were shifted among schools the next year.

The majority of the students in the new district came from the 7,000-student county school system, where Sharp Banks had been the elected superintendent for more than 20 years.

&#8220We did a good-enough job selling it that I’ll bet we didn’t lose but 100 kids to consolidation,” he said. &#8220We looked at all the ins and outs and decided it would be to everyone’s advantage,” said Banks, who now lives in Louisiana. &#8220I talked to every group in Warren County about consolidation. I had a few folks against it, but not too many.”

&#8220It was a very well-thought-out plan, in my mind,” said Caldwell who, like many others, had children in school at the time. &#8220But any time things change, there’s always apprehension.”

&#8220Everybody on the board came on with the thought that we could make it work,” said Larry Holman, one of the original board members.

But not everyone was convinced.

&#8220It’s the worst thing that ever happened to Vicksburg and Warren County schools,” said Jim Stirgus, superintendent of the former Vicksburg Municipal Separate District at the time of the merger and who has been administrator of the Vicksburg Housing Authority since.

Stirgus had been a Vicksburg educator since 1958 when he graduated from Alcorn State University. In 1960, he became principal of Rosa A. Temple High School.

Both Banks and Stirgus, who was appointed to head the city schools, were contenders for superintendent of the consolidated district, but board members chose to go outside the state to hire the first chief, a move that took city-county rivalry into consideration.

Stirgus said his beef 20 years later is that the merger brought education and politics too close together. On the city board, the composition of the city’s school board better reflected the makeup of the community, he said. Politicking was limited because the superintendent was appointed by the city and the superintendent appointed the board. County school board members were elected from supervisor districts, as they are today.

Banks started his 37-year career in education at Redwood as a teacher and girls basketball coach. He became principal of Jett Elementary in 1952 and eventually rose to lead the district.

Controversy over consolidation was not new to Banks, who also oversaw another merger in 1965 when Redwood, Culkin and Jett schools consolidated their high school students to form Warren Central High School.

&#8220I think both districts had good programs,” but &#8220when two entities come together, there’s going to be some change and there’s going to be some give and take,” said Rita Wyatt, another member of the first VWSD board. She was also the only board member with previous experience, having served on the city school board.

Grey Ferris, a Vicksburg native, attorney and longtime cattle rancher, was the first board president. He went on to two terms in the state Senate and served in a key role as Senate Education chairman.

He says the school districts had several incentives to merge – money, race and duplication.

The money aspect was a then-pending annexation case filed in 1982 by the City of Vicksburg to grow from 13 square miles to nearly 90, taking in vast residential areas such as Oak Park and Openwood Plantation subdivisions.

Before consolidation, city property taxes supplemented city schools and county taxes supplemented county schools. With large residential areas and the Port of Vicksburg industrial area in the annexation plan, talks of merging gained impetus.

Kermit Harness, principal of Vicksburg High School in 1988 when students and teachers were shifted, said the city’s pending case, admittedly a non-education reason to consider merging, was a factor.

&#8220When the city talked about annexation, I think they felt that was going to destroy the county system,” he said.

Banks agreed. &#8220It wasn’t imperative that we do anything,” he said &#8220but if we had lost 30 percent of our assessed (land) evaluation, we would have been in trouble.”

As it turned out, Chancellor Nate Adams of Greenville, disallowed most of the city’s annexation request – including Oak Park and Openwood – but did allow annexation of the port. On July 1, 1990, Vicksburg added about 6,000 residents and 20 square miles, but by then school consolidation was complete.

Not a career educator, Ferris said his entry into the field was prompted by friends and fellow parents when consolidation plans were announced.

The board worked hard to eliminate inequities between city and county facilities said Ferris, who estimated the VWSD spent about $750,000 in the first few years. &#8220There was some leveling up to be done.”

The race aspect was that before the merger, the Warren County schools were about 65 percent white, while the Vicksburg Municipal Separate District was about 3,000 students and mostly black said Banks, who described the racial inequities as &#8220not good” because both districts were under U.S. Justice Department monitoring for racial balance. One elementary, Grove Street, had no white students some years and just a few in others.

All acknowledge that in 1987, some 15 years after court-ordered integration, some in the community still did not want to see the racial divide diminished. That was a biracial feeling, as many parents at a Grove Street meeting expressed the sentiment, &#8220My child doesn’t have to sit by a white child to learn.”

Wyatt said the concern also spread to the mostly black city school faculty and staff and was a reasonable worry.

&#8220We wanted to make sure that no one would be demoted, dismissed or fired,” she said.

While not everyone was happy with being moved to a different school or a different position, she said the consolidation committee was able to ensure that everyone had a job if they wanted it, said Wyatt, who served on the board through 1991.

Ferris said the district enlisted the help of the Justice Department, to ensure lines were drawn so that every school would be racially balanced.

As part of achieving that goal, Bowmar and Grove Street schools, in mostly black residential areas, were made &#8220magnet schools” with enhanced programs to draw a racially mixed student body from other school districts.

Today the district still operates under the 40-year-old court order that prescribes zoning rules and other factors to ensure school enrollments reflect the racial makeup of the community. The Justice Department, officials say, is ready to drop its oversight on the belief the district will not resegregate, but that’s controversial, too.

&#8220We did everything we could to make sure the district was racially balanced,” said Ferris. Initial district lines for elementaries, two junior highs and two high schools were drawn to match local demographics almost perfectly. &#8220I think you always see room for improvement,” Ferris said. Over time, population shifts have led to imbalances, which the district has answered through adjusting lines once and with an administratively controlled school-choice plan for elementaries that lasted five years.

While most supported the idea, in theory, they were not quite as enthusiastic when it came to actually making changes, he said.

&#8220There’s some people I see on the street today who blame me for consolidation,” said Ferris. But &#8220we really did everything we could to involve the community.”

Harness said everyone in the district worked hard to reduce anxiety by communicating with teachers, parents, students and community leaders.

He also said he had a few moments of anxiety when then associate superintendent Robert Pickett asked him to take the principal’s job.

&#8220I told him I wasn’t interested,” said Harness, who retired in 2000 after a 36 years in education and was a band director for most of his career.

But Pickett, later a superintendent of the consolidated district, told him, &#8220If you don’t accept, we’ll have to draft you.’ I told him, ‘If you feel that strongly about it, I’ll give it my best shot.’”

Warren Central High teachers also had an anxiety-filled afternoon in 1987.

&#8220I remember the day that it happened,” said Lynn Baker, who was teaching English and history at the time and is now starting her second year as headmaster of Porters Chapel Academy.

&#8220They came in and handed you an envelope.” Inside, teachers found a letter telling them if would remain at Warren Central or move to Vicksburg High. Baker got to stay, but &#8220I’m sure there were a lot of hard feelings,” she said.

&#8220I think that our principals did the best they could,” to make the transition easier and &#8220the kids gave it their best shot,” said Baker.

The VWSD’s longest serving board member, Zelmarine Murphy agreed. &#8220The children really set the tone,” for the change, she said.

At Vicksburg High, the transition was &#822099 percent positive,” said Harness. But &#8220you’re always going to have all kinds of challenges every day you step foot on campus,” he said.

The students and parents, &#8220didn’t know us,” and were understandably apprehensive, said Peter Pikul, principal at Warren Junior High when students were moved around in the fall of 1988.

Pikul, a Vicksburg native, worked in public education for 27 years. He retired in 1997 and worked at Vicksburg Catholic School for several years.

The first superintendent hired was Ed Gilley. A Tennesseean, the job was his first as a superintendent. He left after two or three years, which has been the average tenure for a VWSD superintendent.

Current Superintendent James Price, now in his fifth year at the top post is a Vicksburg High School graduate, 17-year VWSD employee and a Vicksburg native. He said that in spite of the lingering hard feelings, consolidating was a &#8220bold, wise move.”

&#8220Had it not been for the consolidation, our public school system would not be what it is today,” Price said.

All of the services required to support a school district – transportation, finance, maintenance – are under one umbrella, making everyone’s job easier, said Price.

&#8220Running a school district is not an easy job. I have incredible respect for educators in the community,” said Ferris.

Holman said the while initially painful, consolidating has served its purposes – uniting the community, reducing racial divides and eliminating the duplication of services.

Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus repeatedly praised the move, saying it allowed the district here to have stronger programs in music, art and advanced placement math and science courses smaller districts don’t have and which the state doesn’t fund.

It hasn’t been cheap. The first consolidated budget was $28 million. This year’s spending plan is $77 million, with much of the growth coming from higher teacher pay, utility costs, fuel and general inflation. Property tax increases were enacted almost annually, however, until the 1991 advent of casinos, which kick in about $3 million to local education each year and have played a role in raising area property values.

Harness indicated if there is one person who stood out in the process it was Ferris – for doing a good job under difficult circumstances.

&#8220He believed in fairness – doing what was right. And a lot of time when people try to do what is right, they may not make as many friends,” Harness said.

Banks is grateful he didn’t have to do it alone. &#8220I had good people and they worked hard and we all worked together,” he said. &#8220I thank them everyday and appreciate them very much.”

Harness also said he wouldn’t trade his experiences with Vicksburg schools for anything. &#8220I could write a book – it’s a wonderful school system.”