Meridian Star

December 31, 2007

Story of the Year: Community overwhelmingly backs $19.5 million school bond




By Ida Brown

ibrown@themeridianstar.com

In the spirit of the ancient African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," the Meridian community took a major step on March 27 to secure a better educational future for local youth: the passage of a proposed $19.5 million bond for the Meridian Public School District.

The outcome not only was overwhelmingly approved – passing by more than 71 percent – but also historical. Two previous bond issues – the last estimated at $40 million – had failed.

"This marks the first time in more than 20 years that the community has invested in substantially improving where our children go to school, what they learn and how they are taught,” Superintendent Sylvia Autry commented the day after the school district's victory.

The bond request was the result of an 18-month study of the district’s future needs by the Framing the Future taskforces — composed of nearly 60 parents, teachers, principals and a diverse cross-section of citizens. Specific recommendations for capital improvements to Meridian’s public schools are designed to ensure that all students meet the most rigorous standards in an excellent learning environment.

Atlanta-based consultant Robert Kronley of Kronley & Associates has been a key player in evaluating the district and fostering potential new directions.

“The concept is that a community is only as good as its education system,” said MPSD Board President Wile said. “This bond not only will improve our education system, but also better prepare graduates to become more productive and better citizens.”

Scheduled to be repaid over a 20-year period, the $19.5 million bond will be used for four major areas: air conditioning for all cafeterias in all schools; renovating schools; implementing small learning communities at Meridian High School; and a new, separate, state-of-the art school for the ninth grade on the high school campus that will provide more opportunity for effective and expanded learning.

And while the outcome was favorable, the bond issue was not without controversy.

A group known as Concerned Citizens of Meridian/Lauderdale County filed a lawsuit to stop the school district from moving forward with its 19.5 million bond issue. Unfairness in the district and accountability were cited as major concerns.

" ... If you take a moment to look, you will see there are 82 percent African Americans in the school district, yet it is not reflected in employment," said Sam Thompson, a Concerned Citizens representative.

"Meridian Public School officials say they look but they can’t find them and there are people in my church who graduated and filled out applications and nothing has happened."

Regarding accountability, Randle Jennings, another representative of the group, said, "I believe the student’s needs are not being met. A lot of our children come from poverty. I’m looking at the economic impact that it is having on the district.

"There is $65 million in the budget and $45 million is spent on salaries, but we need to look at who is receiving the salaries," Jennings said. "Most of the teachers who receive the salaries live in the county, but the children come from the city. It doesn’t register."

Also, during a town hall meeting a week before the election, there were a lot of questions and comments about why it was necessary to build a ninth-grade school on the Meridian High School campus, and why a new high school was not in the plans.

Nonetheless, the bond issue had its staunch supporters.

Moments after the announcement of the special election, people began rallying support. Brightly colored signs with “School Bond, Yes. It’s Right/School Bond, Yes. It’s Time” were visible in neighborhoods throughout the community, as well as in front of businesses. And school officials, as well as parents, community leaders and other interested individuals worked tirelessly — going door-to-door, distributing pamphlets and meeting with civic clubs and other groups — to get the word out to assure the bond’s required 60 percent passage.

Proceeds from the school district’s first sale of $5 million in bonds have been used as follows:

• Air conditioning of all school cafeterias. Previously scheduled for completion in the summer of 2008, the work has been completely finished a year early.

• Architect company selected and design schematics approved for ninth-grade facility submitted. Pryor & Morrow Architects, which has offices in Columbus and Tupelo, was chosen to oversee the project. According to Wile, the firm's work includes the redesign of the Marks Rothenberg building.

"One of the things the selection committee and the board liked about them was that they focused on how to make this building architecturally enhanced, but fit in with the high school – rather than design some 'state-of-the-art' that's going to look out of place," Wile said.

The design schematics are currently in the detailed design phase and are scheduled to go out for bid in early March, Wile said. They will then go into a construction documents phase, with plans for construction set to begin sometime in April and end in June 2009.

• Classroom renovations did not begin the summer of 2007 as hoped. Archer Architects will do the work, which is scheduled to begin the day after school ends and continue throughout the summer, Wile said.

• Meridian High School track and tennis court improvements. Local civil engineer Terrell Temple has been hired to improve the athletic facilities. Work on the tennis courts are scheduled to be completed by late spring 2008. A new track is scheduled to be ready for the opening of the 2008-09 school year.

• High school redesign. Progress is being made in redesigning MHS by developing small learning communities. All summer, teams of educators and citizens, with additional input from the community, worked to design small learning communities in Arts and Culture, Academic Excellence, Business and Technology, Health, Ninth Grade and Traditional Studies. The redesign program will begin in a start-up mode in the August 2008 school year.

Commenting on the significance of the passage of the $19.5 million school bond, Wile said it sets a plan for the future.

"This community has stood behind the school district with overwhelming support of the bond issue," he said. "The fun part will be as we continue down this path of implementation, and what it will do for the children of Meridian – and the community."