Task force to work on 2007 legislative plan

Published 4:40 pm Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Members of a task force faced with the daunting challenge of improving the impoverished Delta region are preparing for a working retreat where they’ll hammer out a plan to present to the 2007 Legislature.

The group says there is no quick fix for a region mired in decades of poverty, illiteracy and inadequate health care.

“The plight of the Delta has been ongoing for hundreds of years. We’re not going to overcome overnight, but we’re getting further and further behind. More and more people are being lost,” said former House Speaker Pro Tempore Robert Clark, chairman of the task force and himself a Delta resident.

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The Delta Revitalization Task Force, a group of business, community and state leaders, met Tuesday at the state Capitol to discuss education and economic development.

It was one of the last meetings before the group’s Sept. 27 retreat at Gold Strike Casino in Robinsonville.

After listening to state Education Superintendent Hank Bounds talk about the region’s low test scores, teacher shortage and dropout rate, Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, said the group would likely present an education proposal to lawmakers when they convene in January.

Bounds told members that the under-performance in the Delta can be remedied through more state, community and parental involvement.

Bounds cited the recent achievements of the North Bolivar School District, which had been under the oversight of the state. He said two of North Bolivar’s three schools that scored at the bottom last year will move to Level 4, exemplary.

“I can’t think of any state that has intervened that had that type of success,” Bounds said.

Mayo said it’s important that Mississippi take an active role in improving the Delta since the region’s predicament is, in large part, the result of state laws and policies.

“State laws promoted slavery, Jim Crow, prevented blacks from getting a public school education and underfunded schools right through the 70s…,” Mayo said. “I’m saying that state laws got us here and hopefully state laws can get us out of it.”

Over the years, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and private funding were pumped into the Delta with the aim of addressing the very problems that the task force is charged with fixing — education, health care, and economic development.

Clark said there have been “tremendous results” from the efforts of the federal government and private foundations.

“But this is historical because this is not the foundations. This is not the federal government. This is Mississippi,” Clark said.

Clark said one of the first steps should be instilling the importance of education to Delta residents. The region is predominantly black, and Clark said for generations black people in a racially divided society had been told education was not for them.

“They taught us that education was not necessary,” said Clark. “You have people right now in my community saying an educated man cannot understand the Bible. We’ve got to eradicate that from the minds of our people.”

Fewer than 540,000 people — less than a fifth of Mississippi’s total population — live in the Delta region.

Between 1990 and 1999, the average annual income of a Delta resident increased from $14,366 to $17,625, according to a 2002 study conducted by the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University.

The study said the percentage of the Delta population participating in the labor force increased from 40.3 percent in 1987 to 44.1 percent in 2000.

Leland Speed, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority and a member of the task force, said communities in the Delta need to become more attractive and invest in their downtowns.

Speed said Lafayette County in north Mississippi has experienced significant population growth and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. He said people want to live there.

He said some towns in the Delta need to “get rid of these tacky, crummy-looking portable signs. They say ’we don’t have any pride in our community.”’