Dispute over 16th section land going to public hearing

Published 12:22 am Sunday, November 11, 2007

Land that was given to the Picayune Municipal Separate School District in the mid 1950’s by Hancock County is now under dispute as Hancock is attempting to reclaim it.

A public hearing will be held on Nov. 15, where the Hancock County School District is looking for public opinion whether that land should be under the ownership of the county.

Hancock County School District Superintendent David Kopf said he estimates about 30 to 50 students who live in the Flat Top Community currently go to the Picayune School District. About 12 who also live in that community pay tuition to go to Hancock Schools.

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The land in question includes a square mile of 16th section land inside the Stennis Space Center buffer zone.

Picayune School Board attorney Gerald Patch said whatis now the Picayune Municipal Separate School District annexed a portion of north Hancock County into the district to allow Hancock students to attend Picayune schools. A 16th section came with the students to support the costs of the Hancock students attending the Picayune school district.

Picayune Assistant Superintendent Brent Harrell said that according to school board minutes the land was acquired by Picayune on March 25, 1957, when families living in part of Hancock County petitioned to become part of the Picayune school district since at the time the drive to Picayune schools was shorter than to Hancock schools. Before NASA built what is now the John C. Stennis Space Center there were a number of homes on land that is now is mostly in the buffer zone that attended Picayune schools, Patch said.

In 1964, when NASA built the test site, a lot of the original families who had homes there had to move out, Hancock County Chancery Clerk Tim Kellar said. That reduced the number of families that live in the area designated as part of the Picayune school district, he said.

In past years, the Hancock school district has attempted to reclaim that land. Patch said the consensus of the residents in the area was to leave their children in Picayune schools, leading to no change.

Hancock school board president Jennifer Seal said the reason they want to reclaim the land is because a new K-5 grade school is being built in the Lee Town community. Attending that school would be closer for the lower elementary children, she said. However the distance to junior high and or high school in Hancock County would be the same or longer.

In order for Hancock County to acquire the land, a majority of residents in the area that is in Hancock County that is part of the Picayune school district would need to submit a petition for change.

“The residents are the ones who have to get the ball rolling,” Patch said.

Once the petition is submitted, then the Picayune school district would determine if the change would negatively affect its budget. Sixteenth section land is a revenue generator for school districts. Picayune school district school board president Harvey Miller said the section in the Hancock County that belongs the Picayune school district provided it with $890,000 in harvested timber about five years ago.

If the Picayune school board did decide to give the land back, any bonds, or debts owed on the land would be paid to Picayune with Hancock taxes. Even then the 16th section land would remain property of the Picayune School District, Harrel said.

Seal said if the move went in Hancock’s favor then the Hancock school board would attempt to reclaim the 16th section land in the future, but the current priority is the students. She said with a new board coming in after last week’s election, the whole process of reacquiring that land will start over.

The public hearing scheduled for Nov. 15 at the Flat Top Community Center off of Indian Ridge Road at 7 p.m. will attempt to determine if there is public interest in continuing.

Kellar, who lives in the area in questionm said there has been some public interest in getting the land back in the Hancock County school district.