County files suit against Lumberton School District merger

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A lawsuit has been filed by the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors after an 11 person commission voted to ignore a Legislative bill that would have kept Pearl River County residents closer to home.

That vote occurred in relation to a recent push to consolidate the Lumberton School District with the Lamar County School District, which will affect about 140 students living in Pearl River County, said Mississippi Department of Education Interim Deputy Superintendent Mike Kent. A total of 600 students attend that District currently, he said.

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Senate Bill 2500, which was passed during the 2016 Legislative session, initially mandated that all children residing within Pearl River County currently attending the Lumberton School District would be transferred to the Poplarville School District, with the remaining students becoming part of the Lamar County School District.

However, by the end of discussions between an 11 member panel comprised of representatives of the three school districts involved and Kent, the decision was made to make all students who were formerly part of the Lumberton School District part of the Lamar County School District, regardless of where they live.

Hudson Holliday, District III Supervisor for Pearl River County, said the county has filed a lawsuit in the 10th Chancery Court to stop the consolidation process put in motion that negates what the Legislature mandated in SB 2500.

Kent said the two school districts were able to legally disregard SB 2500 due to wording in Mississippi code 37-7-103, which allows school districts to voluntarily consolidate under their own terms.

That decision was made after Poplarville School District Superintendent Carl Merritt asked for time to find space for the additional students during initial discussions conducted by the commission, Kent said. He added that the decision to move away from SB 2500 was also made because the discussions showed a unanimous agreement couldn’t be reached between representatives with the three districts, Kent said.

Merrit said he did ask for that time during the first meeting of the commission to determine if the district’s infrastructure could accommodate those students, but once he determined that he wouldn’t need any additional time and could accommodate those students by the deadline outlined in the bill of July 2018, a decision had already been made by the other members of the commission to keep all students attending Lumberton schools together.

At that point, representatives with the Poplarville School District expressed concern that the proposal by the commission did not meet what the Legislature set forth in the bill, so Kent said he took the matter before Senate leadership, including Chairman of the Senate Education Committee Gray Tollison. Kent said it was the determination of Tollison and other lawmakers present during that meeting that the intent of the bill was still being met by consolidating the Lumberton and Lamar County School districts under 37-7-103, so the recommendation was made to proceed.

While campuses in Lumberton will remain open in the short-term, there are still questions as to whether the students affected by this change will continue to attend Lumberton Schools in the long-term. Kent said the possibility remains that Lamar County School District administration may choose to close those campuses and send the students to campuses further away.

Holliday said that is one of his concerns, especially since Purvis High School is further than Poplarville High School for many of those students.

Pearl River County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin said he is also concerned about the long-term operation of Lumberton campuses.

“Because everyone you talk to says that they don’t plan to operate the school as a K-12, so it will become an elementary school in a couple of years and high school kids will need to travel to Purvis. We’re talking about kids going twice as far to get to school as opposed to coming to Poplarville,” Lumpkin said.

Holliday said that the decision puts tax dollars generated within Pearl River County into the Lamar County School District.

Kent argues that those taxes were never going to Pearl River County in the first place since they were being used by the Lumberton School District.

Now an election will be held in April to elect a new member to the Lamar County School District’s Board of Trustees to represent the former Lumberton School District.

A letter issued to the Pearl River County Circuit Clerk’s office states Pearl River County residents would be eligible to participate in the upcoming election to run for that office, and choose that person through the election.

Holliday estimates that the election will include about 900 voters, 20 percent of which are Pearl River County residents, which means a candidate from this area would have little chance of winning. In addition to the numbers disadvantage, Holliday said he is concerned about the expense the county will incur to hold that election, estimated to be $10,000.

Kent said that he’s been involved in about 13 school district consolidations so far in the state, and not one has ended with a unanimous agreement.

Lumpkin said he expects the lawsuit to be heard sometime in March by Chancery Court Judge Deborah J. Gambrell.