The Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District has two problems when it comes to its buildings. It has too many of them, and too many of them are in bad shape.
Fixing those two problems has two problems of its own: one monetary, one emotional.
To get the solution right is going to take a lot of money, which means getting a bond issue passed, something that has historically been difficult in this community.
It’s also going to require overcoming some of the deep emotional connections that alumni and family have to the schools that should be closed.
The school district has begun trying to come up with a building plan by soliciting input from various groups. Last week, it held the first of what is expected to be a series of meetings with students, parents, faculty, staff and community and business leaders. I participated in one of those meetings, which had to be held by videoconference because of the new coronavirus.
There is no reasonable argument against the need for a major program to address the substandard condition of the public school buildings in this county.
Beard + Riser, the Greenwood architecture firm, did an analysis of every campus. Its research is a clear call to action.
The 13 schools in the consolidated district, which was formed last year with the merger of the Greenwood and Leflore County districts, are old. They have an average age of 65, and 80% of the total space is 50 years old or older.
Age alone is not the reason to replace buildings. A tour of some of the campuses, however, will show that many of these buildings look beyond repair — some due to foundation problems, some due to lack of maintenance, some due to just the accelerated wear and tear that occur in a building housing tons of children for seven or eight hours a day.
Beard + Riser rated the school buildings. It found only one campus that it considered in adequate condition. Three others were considered salvageable. The other nine probably need a wrecking ball.
One small silver lining in this otherwise bad situation it’s that it almost forces the school board to shut down some schools and get the infrastructure right-sized to the enrollment, which has been in steady decline as this county has lost population.
Whatever the plan to address the building deficiencies, it almost certainly would have to be done in stages. There’s just no way to come up with enough money, even if the electorate were willing, to address all of the building needs at once.
Where should the school district start?
What’s always made the most sense to me is to work from the top down. Three high schools in a county of this size is ridiculous. It could easily get by with two, and probably just one.
But I’m told by those who know the students and their backgrounds better than I do that trying to mix the current student bodies from Leflore County, Amanda Elzy and Greenwood High is asking for trouble. There are rivalries between the schools that go back generations, and it would be tough to keep that from spilling over into the halls and classrooms of a consolidated high school.
A counter idea, and one I had not previously considered, is to work from the bottom up, creating countywide elementary schools first. The thought is that if the students start from an early age going to school together, those rivalries between them won’t develop. As they age through the system, consolidation could more smoothly occur in the upper grades.
Maybe that is a better idea. It would probably generate less emotional resistance, since the most passionate school loyalties are linked to where people attended high school, not elementary school.
Whether Phase One is bottom up or top down, though, the initial amount of money needed from a bond issue would be about the same: close to $40 million.
That would max out the school district’s taxing authority, and it could be as many as 20 more years before it had enough debt paid down to start on Phase Two.
A bond issue of that size would be by far the largest in recent memory. In 1998 and 2002, the Greenwood School District unsuccessfully tried to get bond issues passed that, in today’s dollars, would be worth $16 million to $18 million. Leflore County had better luck in 1991, but that bond issue was only for $3.6 million (about $7 million in today’s dollars).
Would the voters go for any size bond issue with the current uncertainty about how deeply and how long COVID-19 will crush the economy? David Jordan, the veteran state senator and retired schoolteacher, doesn’t think so. This past week he encouraged the school board to wait a couple of years before trying. His warning may have been unnecessary, as it doesn’t appear the school board’s timetable calls for a vote this year.
When it does settle on a building plan, people will ask what it’s going to cost them. I’ve done some rough math on $38 million, the most the school district could legally seek in a bond issue. That would add another $100 a year in property taxes on a $100,000 home and $90 on a $30,000 automobile.
It’s tough to ever get 60% of the voters to voluntarily raise their taxes, but that doesn’t seem like an outrageous amount of money to address decades of neglect.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.