Hopefuls in 3 races tackle issues

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 23, 2010

Personal appearance policies, so-called “over-age” students in the Vicksburg Warren School District and applying the law fairly in justice court dominated the discourse at a forum of candidates during an issues forum Friday night at the Warren County Courthouse.

District 1 school board candidates Jerry Boland and Bryan Pratt, five of seven justice court hopefuls in Warren County’s city-based central district and state Court of Appeals Judge Tyree Irving attended the forum, hosted by the Vicksburg Branch of the NAACP, the Vicksburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the Mississippi Chapter of Blacks in Government.

The three contested offices will be on the general election ballot Nov. 2. Headlining the ballot is the race for Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District between U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Republican Bill Marcy and Reform Party candidate Ashley Norwood. None of the three attended Friday, though organizers had contacted both Thompson’s office and campaign staff for Marcy.

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A hot topic at the forum was the case of a Vicksburg High student who was denied the chance to walk his escort at VHS’ homecoming because of his dreadlocks.

To date, no legal action has been filed on behalf of the student.

Boland, a roofing contractor seeking reelection to the northeast Warren County district, and Pratt, director of information technology at Ameristar Casino and repeat challenger after losing to Boland in 2004, faced questions on ways to avoid stepping on students’ freedom of expression and whether school trustees should study cultural trends before setting any policy on appropriate hairstyles. Currently, VWSD policy doesn’t address hairstyles and leeway is given to individual principals to craft an appearance policy. In Vicksburg High’s handbook, nothing is written about dreadlocks and formal functions.

“It’s one of those touchy, disturbing kind of issues,” Boland said, adding policing of appearance should fall to individual students. “Maybe if we involve the kids with the staff in trying to make some of these decisions, then the children would be more cooperative to understand from the administration standpoint. … the key is to involve the kids in that process with policing-type violations.”

Pratt said he saw the problem in a “different light,” saying that policies need to be applied “across the board and to everybody.”

“If we wait for an event to enforce the dress code, then that is not being enforced fairly and impartially,” Pratt said. “We do this in the workplace. We expect this of the rules we have and the laws we have and I don’t think bringing the kids into the process solves this particular problem.”

A plan for getting students to graduate on time — and before their 19th birthday — will be unveiled at trustees’ next board meeting Thursday, Boland said. Over-age students will be grouped together, where the focus will be on “core subjects” to help them pass, he added. A 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio is the goal, with recruitment of new teachers to instruct them a possibility if participation from current staff is low, he said.

“To understand, these are 17-year-old kids in the eighth grade,” Boland said to about 20 in attendance. “The goal in mind is to get them caught up with their peers.”

Both called combining Vicksburg High School and Warren Central High School “a hot potato” when the question was asked.

“There’s pros and cons to doing it,” Pratt said, adding it would only work with firm community support.

Boland said building another high school has been estimated at $50 million and he wouldn’t “strap our taxpayers” to merge the two schools.

The district was formed in 1987 from consolidating Vicksburg and Warren County school districts. Boland said building another elementary school was closer to “where our current priorities lie” in terms of easing ratios at the district’s six lower-grade schools.

Candidates for justice court answered questions on applying laws concerning small claims and misdemeanor offenses fairly. Of the five who attended, three are either current or former city police officers — former constable Rudolph Walker, police Sgt. Beverly Prentiss and retired police Lt. Dora Smith — which also brought up the issue of familiarity with repeat offenders, particularly domestic violence cases.

“If you already know you have broken the law, you already know what’s up because that’s the way I am,” Prentiss said.

“I don’t see black and white — I see people,” said Audrey Jones Jackson, an NRoute operations manager making her first run at public office.

Incumbent James Jefferson Jr., who sits on an informal justice system committee of elected officials, said one possible reform discussed is a mental health court, which the justice court judge would oversee and determine whether a defendant needs counseling.

The full list of candidates in the race includes Jefferson, Jackson, Walker, Prentiss, Smith, and two candidates who didn’t attend Friday’s forum, former U.S. Navy officer Henry Phillips and Lester R. Smith.

Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Tyree Irving, elected from the appellate court’s District 2 which includes 22 counties, is opposed by Vicksburg attorney Ceola James, who did not attend the forum. Irving said the court decides 70 to 80 percent of appeals from circuit and chancery courts from around the state of Mississippi.

“We can only promise to be fair and impartial,” Irving said. “Our record is out there on the Internet.”