Bond issue vote set for Sept. 16

Published 4:39 pm Thursday, August 14, 2008

On Tues, Sept. 16, voters in the Poplarville Separate Municipal School District will decide on a $15 million bond issue to build a new lower elementary school.

A positive vote, which requires approval by at least 60 percent of those voting, will pave the way for eventuall having all new schools on a K-12 campus just south of town on Mississippi Highway 53. The announcement for the new schools came last week at the meeting of the Poplarville Rotary Club in a talk by school district Superintendent Carl Merritt.

When Merritt took the helm of Poplarville schools last year, he said he began looking ahead 10 to 15 years and realized aging problems of current facilities would be a great challenge for the future of Poplarville.

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Believing he had an opportunity to make a difference for the future of Poplarville’s children, Merritt believed the district needed to hire a professional group to conduct a feasibility study to determine the district’s needs.

“I am convinced what we’re doing is proper and correct,” said Merritt, who said the school board has put its stamp of approval on the recommendations made by the Bailey Education Group of Tupelo.

Merritt turned the meeting over to Gary Bailey to reveal his recommendations for a bond issue and related findings of the study.

Bailey’s findings resulted in a proposal to eventually relocate all the schools to a 285-acre tract of 16th Section land owned by the district on Miss. 53 South across from the Poplarville-Pearl River County airport.

Bailey said district schools are at capacity and, geographically, the district is one of the largest in Mississippi. Factoring in a six percent growth rate per year, he said that in five years the schools will be seriously overcrowded and will need trailers for additional classroom space.

The education consultant said the district’s top priority is to build a new K-2 school to be ready to welcome students in August of 2010.

“Poplarville Lower Elementary has outlived its use as an educational facility,” Bailey said.

Because of its historical significance to the community, he said the lower school building could be used as the central office for the district as well as housing the Parent Center and possibly an alternative school.

Plans are to eventually make the new facility a K-5 school with the kindergarten to second grade in one wing and the third to fifth grade in a parallel wing. Both fully enclosed wings will be connected by a central office area. Each wing will be designed for a teacher to stand at an intersection of the hallway and being able to see anyone walking in those halls.

Although the initial phase would be the K-2 school, the district would add grades 3-5 as funds come available. Bailey said it would require approximately $1.8-$2 million for each additional grade at the new elementary school.

For all new schools, the total project price tag would be between $40 and $50 million, Bailey said. Although there is no way of projecting exactly how long it would take to accomplish that goal, he noted it could be anywhere between eight and 20 years depending upon tax revenues and growth.

Bailey recommended the district move swiftly to put the bond issue before the people for the new elementary school. With the Sept. 16 special election, if the issue passes, the district would be on track to make the school a reality by the onset of the 2010 school year.

That facility should cost the district approximately $16 million. The district has a bonding capacity of $15 million and some local cash to fund the project.

Although the middle school is the district’s best facility, both the upper elementary and high school are in need of repairs, said Bailey, particularly electrical, mechanical and painting.

Plans are to add classes to the middle school and to improve the gym to a competition gym if funds are available. The high school needs to renovate its gym and add classroom space as well.

Because the long-range vision is for all schools to be relocated to the new campus, Bailey recommends all repairs be made in keeping with that vision.

Regarding how the bond issue would affect voters’ pocketbooks, Bailey said on a typical $100,000 home, the additional cost would be approximately $83 per year. That figure does not factor in homestead exemptions.

The tax burden would be less on the elderly as senior citizens over age 65 are exempt from taxes on the first $65,000 of the home’s value, Bailey said.

On a $15,000 automobile, taxes would increase by $37 annually, he said.

Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson was at the meeting and asked Rotarians if they would be willing to pay $83 a year to get a new school for the children of Poplarville. Most in the room responded affirmatively.

Bank Plus vice president Wayne Alexander told fellow Rotarians the single most important investment most people make is purchasing a home. He said one of the best ways to protect that investment is to invest in local schools.

“The number one thing that will draw families to a community is the investment made in public schools,” said Alexander.

As business opportunities arise potentially drawing those families to move to the area, they will do so because of the quality of the schools, he said.

He said first impressions when visitors come into a community are important. If a prospective homebuyer comes to Poplarville and sees run-down schools, Alexander said they will probably move on to another town. If they see new facilities, their first impression is that the community cares about its young people.

Merritt said every school administrator and teacher is behind the vision for new schools.

“They desperately want this,” said Merritt, “and they all support Poplarville Lower Elementary being the top priority as well.”

Merritt said the district will hold public meetings before the special election to answer voters’ questions and concerns.