Non binding referendum shows public interest in reacquisition

Published 12:59 am Sunday, November 9, 2008

About 70 percent of those voters in the Flat Top community in Hancock County voted in support of that section of Hancock County becoming part of the Hancock County School District, but that vote has no actual effect on school district boundaries.

For about 50 years, Hancock County residents in a section of the Flat Top community have been sending their children to school the Picayune Municipal Separate School District, as mandated in an agreement between the two counties in 1957.

Now, the Hancock County School District is attempting to regain what they handed over so long ago, a tax base.

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This issue has come up numerous times before. Picayune School Board Attorney Gerald Patch said the issue has been brought before the board in 1993, 2004 and 2005. It was even presented to the school board in the form of a petition in 2007. Every time the Picayune school board denied Hancock County’s request.

A non-binding referendum was added to Tuesday’s ballot to get an idea of what the public thought of the matter, said Hancock County school board president Dr. Jennifer Seal.

Seal said the referendum was added to the ballot at their request, in order to gauge community interest in becoming part of the Hancock County School District. The unofficial results show that about 71 percent of the residents who voted on the matter were for the community becoming part of the Hancock County School District and about 28 percent were against it. She said the board is pleased with the results of the referendum and it has provided them insight on how to proceed with an attempt to acquire that property.

“We felt like we needed to see exactly what the people wanted,” Seal said.

Votes collected Tuesday showed 130 people were for going back to the Hancock County School District and 53 people wanted to stay with the Picayune School District, said Circuit Clerk Karen Ruhr. She said the only voters to see the referendum on their ballot were those who live in the Picayune school district.

Patch finds those results surprising considering when the matter came up in the past a number of parents packed the school board meeting to object the change.

Patch said the children in that community began attending Picayune Schools in March of 1957 when the Hancock County School District asked the Picayune School District to annex them. That issue also had to be approved by the state board of education, Patch said.

Previously, Hancock Tax Assessor Jimmie Ladner said the area in question consists of 170 improved parcels and a section of 16th section land in the Stennis Space Center Buffer Zone. During the 2006-2007 school year, Picayune’s school district received $163,272.61 in ad valorem taxes from the area, that story states.

A public notice sent out to the Hancock voters prior to this election stated that if the switch were to take place then they would pay less property taxes. The notice states that Picayune collects 56.14 mills, while Hancock collects 43.47 mills. A chart also was provided in the notice that reflected testing averages for each school compared to the state average. Most of which showed Hancock had a slight lead.

Ruhr said in her 24 years of employment in the Circuit Clerk’s Office, this is the first time a referendum on the matter was requested as part of a ballot. She said the results could be significant considering it was placed on a presidential ballot that involved a high turnout of voters.

Some of the basis for Hancock’s interest in the change may be due to the opening of the newly built West Hancock Elementary, which students will begin attending on Monday. The school is located in the Lee Town community.

Picayune school district Assistant Superintendent Brent Harrell said individual students always have the option to attend another school by simply going through the proper procedure.

“That happens all the time,” Harrell said.

However, returning the Flat Top community sections in the Picayune school District to the Hancock County School District will be a decision for the Picayune school board. Even if the board decides to approve the change, the 16th section land in the buffer zone will remain in the Picayune school district. Patch does not expect the board to approve any such motion.

Patch referred to Hancock’s current efforts to reclaim the land given away almost 50 years ago to a person selling a piece of land for cheap only to find out later of its valuable.

“It’s kind of like seller’s remorse, so to speak,” Patch said. “The board’s not going to give it up because it would impair us financially.”

Hancock County Superintendent Allen Dedeaux said the matter will be discussed at the school board’s next meeting on Thursday. Their meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 13, in the superintendent’s office on Mississippi Highway 603.