Trustees examine potential bond referendum

By DAVID TISDALE,

A referendum could be put before Hattiesburg voters in May if the city’s school district board of trustees moves to ask for a renewal of property taxes due to expire soon, which could bring in approximately $20 million for proposed improvements to its schools.

The board heard a summary of recommendations from James Stewart of the Bailey Education Group consulting firm for those improvements at its March 6 board meeting. This came on the heels of a series of community meetings held in recent weeks in which district residents shared opinions, recommendations and concerns about how the district would spend the money. Proposed improvements could include those pertaining primarily to infrastructure - heating and air, roofing, security, restrooms, as well as a new front façade/entrance to the Hattiesburg High School campus, among others.

A discussion at the meeting of how the voting process would work centered on factors that included cost and voter access. Bond attorney James W. Young cited options for consideration that ranged from a single voting precinct, which could be the least costly but more inconvenient in terms of voter access; employing three voting sites, which would cost less than having voting take place at each regular city voting precinct, but could create complications regarding assignment of voters to the sites; or the most costly option of using all existing city voting precincts. School board member Carey Varnado suggested setting up one voting precinct in each of the city’s five wards.

A decision on the referendum – which would require the board announcing its adoption of a resolution and intent for the bond, and then call for the election – could be announced by the board in March. Management of the referendum vote would be the responsibility of the city election commission.

During the meeting’s public comment period, Mary Bethune Alternative Center teacher Cissy Smith, who has worked in the district since 2001, asked board members to consider investing in the district’s “human capital” – its employees – in its discussions about how funding from the bond issue might be used, as well as in setting overall budget priorities in the future. 

Smith cited the need for improving salaries of current district teachers and support staff, particularly those who have been loyal to the Hattiesburg schools even during budget and pay reductions, as well as to better compete with other districts for skilled educators in a shrinking pool of available credentialed teachers.  

The board of trustees also chose new officers at the meeting, including Delores McNair as board president and Patricia Fluker as secretary. The board’s newest member, Yolanda Morris, was sworn in by Board Attorney Percy Watson. 

McNair said she is humbled by the confidence placed in her by fellow board members, and expressed gratitude to outgoing board president Marcus Cathey for his 10 years of service on the board and continuing support of the district. 

“My goal as board president is to ensure policies are in place to overcome challenges and reap the rewards of a successful district for our students and stakeholders,” McNair said.

 

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