Judge sets date for consolidation complaint trial

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Chancellor Deborah J. Gambrell has scheduled a two-day trial on June 28 in Lamar County to hear the Pearl River Board of Supervisors’ complaint against the voluntary consolidation of the Lamar County and Lumberton school districts.

The consolidation is scheduled to begin July 1, only three days after the scheduled voluntary consolidation begins.

The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors filed a legal complaint Nov. 20, 2017, seeking a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunction and declaratory judgment to stop the consolidation plan. Gambrell denied the preliminary injunction on Jan. 22 after a hearing Jan. 16 in Columbia. The decision was filed Jan. 30.

The supervisors, represented by Jackson attorneys R. Andrew Taggart Jr. and David G. Porter, filed the complaint against the Mississippi State Board of Education, the Lamar County School District, the Lumberton Public School District and the Commission on the Administrative Consolidation of the Lumberton Public School District.

The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors filed the complaint seeking to stop the Lamar County and Lumberton school boards from voluntary consolidation after the school boards received approval from the state Department of Education to begin the first one attempted in the state. Lumberton is expected to become a part of the Lamar County School District beginning July 1.

Lamar County School Board Attorney Rick Norton also attended the hearing Jan. 16.

The Lamar County and Lumberton school districts are continuing to proceed with the consolidation, setting a special election April 26 for the District C position on the Lamar County School Board. The Lumberton schools – which are expected to become part of the Lamar County district – then will have representation after the July 1 voluntary consolidation.

The seat is held by Jeremy Chance, who was elected board president on Jan. 18. He is being challenged by Gladys Parker Rodgers of Lumberton.

Other Lamar County board members are secretary Deborah Pierce of District A, vice president Buddy Morris of District E, Carolyn Adams of District B and newly-chosen Tony Ingram of District D.

One recent action by the attorneys representing the Lumberton Public School District included seeking Lamar Times circulation data to determine if Pearl River County residents received adequate information concerning the schools’ merger.

Patrick H. Zachary, who is representing the Lumberton district with Vicki R. Leggett, requested data showing “any sales, subscriptions or circulation within Pearl River County ‘either in or out of this area that is encompassed in the Lumberton Public School District’” from David Gustafson, editor and publisher of The Lamar Times. Both the Lumberton and Lamar County school boards have published legal advertisements in The Lamar Times, including the notices concerning the districts’ voluntary consolidation.

Zachary said during a Dec. 16 hearing in Columbia, “The Pearl River Board of Supervisors raised an issue with the Lamar Times not being ‘proper newspaper with circulation into Pearl River County’ in an effort to object to the consolidation effort.”

He said the part of Pearl River County in the Lumberton Public School District is a small area that runs along the southern border of Lamar and the northern border of Pearl River counties and includes the Hideaway Lakes subdivision area.

Dr. Linda L. Smith, superintendent of the Lumberton Public School District, said she told Zachary on the day of the hearing that she lives in Pearl River County and reads The Lamar Times.

“(She) states that she regularly reads The Lamar Times and secures it from others within Pearl River County,” Zachary said. “Accordingly, I am going to secure an affidavit from her also.”

A timeline in the consolidation includes:

May 10, 2016 – Gov. Phil Bryant signs Senate Bill 2500, which set the foundation for the committee to determine the parameters to abolish and dissolve the Lumberton Public School District.

July 28, 2016 – The Commission on the Administrative Consolidation of the Lumberton Public School District, which was created by Senate Bill 2500, holds its first meeting.

Fall 2016 – Commission President Michael D. Kent and Dr. Bill Welch of the state Education Department meet informally with the superintendents of the Lumberton, Lamar County and Poplarville school districts to check the status of consolidation talks.

Feb. 17, 2017 – The Lamar County School District proposes voluntary consolidation with the Lumberton Public School District. Poplarville officials complain that they were “blindsided.”

March 24, 2017 – The commission meets at William Carey University and Lumberton school officials express their support of the voluntary consolidation. After debate, seven members voted in favor of the proposal and three members abstained.

March 27, 2017 – Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, who wrote Senate Bill, is among senators who expressed support for the voluntary consolidation.

May 22, 2017 – The commission meets for the final time at the Ben Barrett Community Center in Lumberton. A consolidation proposal adopted by the Poplarville Separate School District is voted down 7-2.

June 16, 2017 – The State Board of Education ratifies the voluntary consolidation plan with the Lumberton and Lamar County school district.

Nov. 20, 2017 – The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors files a legal complaint for injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment against the voluntary consolidation plan.

Jan. 16, 2018 – Chancellor Deborah Gambrell denies a preliminary injunction request from the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors. The order is made Jan. 22 and filed Jan. 30.

April 26, 2018 – A special election will be held for the District C position on the Lamar County School Board between incumbent Jeremy Chance and Gladys Parker Hodges of Lumberton, providing Lumberton representation on the School Board after the district lines were redrawn.

March 2, 2018 – Gambrell sets a two-day trial for June 28 in Lamar County.