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Pearl River Central parents protest school changes

A group of Pearl River Central school parents, opposed to a split bus schedule that would separate elementary and secondary school bus riders and to changes in school hours, voiced concerns on Tuesday night to Pearl River County school board officials who attended a meeting called by the parents at Salem House on Mississippi Highway 43 South. On April 10, the Pearl River County school board unanimously voted to make the changes after Supt. Alan Lumpkin, and other administrators, told the board the changes would be academically and financially advantageous to the district. However, about 15 parents at the Tuesday night meeting challenged the board’s assumptions in implementing the changes and called for a reversal of the decision. Lumpkin held firm to the board’s decision and said that the school district was willing to make accommodations, but gave no indication that the board would reverse its decision. For example, he said elementary students who need older siblings to remain with them after they arrive home in the afternoon, would be held over in a study hall so they could ride home with the older sibling, and he said hours could be tweaked, too. He said slight changes to the policy are possible. Lumpkin told the parents that the school administration had been studying the proposals for four years, that the decision was not taken lightly and that other school systems that have made the changes were consulted and their systems studied before the proposal was presented to the Pearl River County school board for adoption. He said opposition was expected. “I believe that if you give these changes time, that you will see that they will work and that they will be best overall for the students,” said Lumpkin to the parents. Besides Lumpkin, three school board members — Jeremy Weir, Rodney Dyess and board president Jeff Jones — attended the session along with several PRC district staff members. The parents — mainly Jessie Lee, Johnny Lee and Natalie Kelly, who acted as spokespersons for the group — pointed out that no parents were told about the upcoming changes so they could have input in the decision process. They said that it was presented to the board unannounced and adopted, all in one session, without notice. They also charged that the split bus routes would not save money, as school officials have said, and that separating elementary and secondary students on buses and altering arrival times at home would put undue hardship on families, who depend on older siblings to baby-sit and look after younger siblings until parents who work arrive home in the afternoons. Lumpkin said that the district will take one concern at a time and address it. He said some adjustments were expected. He welcomed the concerns, he told the parents. One exasperated parent told Lumpkin, “At this point, I don’t know what to do, but I know I am against it.” Kelly said her objection was “safety.” She said the idea of putting a small child out alone at home was unthinkable to her. She said there are 37 registered sex offenders who live in the Carriere area. Said Kelly, who charged that if the changes stand some parents will lose their jobs because they will have to choose between remaining home waiting for small children to arrive or going to work, “We trusted you. We voted for some of you. But you didn’t trust us to tell us what was in the plans.” She said employers would not allow breaks during the day for a parent to rush home and baby-sit their child in the evening and then return to work. All five school board members and the superintendent are elected posts under the county school system in Pearl River County. Lumpkin met the challenges head-on and asked the parents for time, assuring them it would work. The changes are expected to take place with the opening of school in August, 2012. Lumpkin said that 66 percent of the districts in the state that are the same size as the Pearl River School District have adopted similar policies regarding times and busing. Lumpkin said PRC officials had studied the Petal system in-depth before making a decision and that Petal officials told them there would be initial opposition, but that would fade as parents became adjusted to the changes and accepted them. As to how much opposition there is to the changes, neither side was sure. Lumpkin said he received only 10 phone calls in opposition to the changes since the news first broke about it, but Jessie Lee and Kelly said they believed there was a large number who opposed the changes. “We had a lot of people tell us that they were opposed to the changes, and some couldn’t be here tonight because of conflicts with work,” Jessie Lee said. Neither side could give any specific numbers on how many supported, or how many opposed, the proposed changes. Kelly asked Lumpkin how to get on the school board’s agenda for the next session, at which time, she said, opponents of the measure plan to present a petition against the it. Lumpkin told her to call the district office and request to be placed on the agenda. Anyone wanting to address the board in-depth on an issue must be placed on the board’s agenda. Lumpkin said the school plans a May 3 meeting at the high school cafeteria to explain to parents the changes that will be implemented. He said the time would be announced later. Lumpkin, along with two other administrative officials, presented the school board with an outline of the plans on April 10 and the school board adopted the plan unanimously without any discussion. He told parents on Tuesday night that he, school officials and board members knew that the decision was “a major one,” and that they did not make the decision lightly. Besides dividing the bus routes into separate routes for elementary and secondary students, the changes called for readjusting school hours, with the elementary schools starting earlier and the junior high and high schools starting later. Proposed new hours are for elementary schools from 7:35 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. and for secondary students from 8:35 a.m. to 4 p.m. Current hours are elementary 7:50 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and secondary 7:40 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.