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State Supreme Court keeps Lumberton School District consolidation intact

This story has been updated to include comments from the Lamar County School District superintendent. 

Some Pearl River County residents will continue to attend Lamar County schools after the Mississippi Supreme Court decided to leave the Lumberton School District consolidation intact.

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors and Poplarville School District waited too long to object to the Lumberton School District being consolidated into the Lamar County School District.

Pearl River County District III Supervisor Hudson Holliday said he was disappointed with the decision.

“In this whole process, we have not put the welfare of the students as a priority,” Holliday said. “While I’m disappointed, I can take solace in the fact that the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors did everything they can to get our students into our schools.”

Lamar County School District Superintendent of Education Tess Smith said via email that she is grateful the district can put the lawsuit in the past.

“We can continue to focus on Lumberton, as we have our other schools, but without a cloud hanging over us. I see great things in the future for Lumberton Schools,” said Smith.

In 2018, Lamar County absorbed all of the Lumberton School District, which included approximately 140 students who resided in Pearl River County at that time, according to previous coverage. Senate Bill 2500, passed in the 2016 Legislative session, required the dissolution of the Lumberton School District and created a commission to discuss how to manage the consolidation. The bill directed the commission to consolidate the Lumberton School District along the Lamar and Pearl River county lines. However, the commission’s final decision did not follow that directive.

Pearl River County and the Poplarville School District sued the Mississippi State Board of Education, Lamar County School District, Lumberton Public School District and the commission for administrating the Lumberton School District consolidation in an effort to undo the voluntary consolidation.

In 2018, the Pearl River County Chancery Court determined that Pearl River County waited too long to object to the consolidation. The county appealed that decision before the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case in November.

Poplarville and Pearl River County claimed the decision to consolidate the school district was illegal, but the Supreme Court agreed with the Chancery Court that Poplarville did not challenge the consolidation plan in a timely manner.

The Supreme Court’s decision addressed four arguments made by Pearl River County and the Poplarville School District.

The court agreed with the Chancery judge that the county’s only path for challenging the Lumberton School District consolidation was through Mississippi Code Section 37-7-115—which requires that an appeal of a voluntary school district consolidation must be filed within 10 days.

The county argued that it would not be considered a person for the purposes of that statute, so the statute would not apply to it. However, the Supreme Court determined that public corporations, like a governmental body for a county or municipality, are considered persons based on Mississippi Code Section 1-3-39. The decision also cites Mississippi Gaming Commission v. Board of Education as precedent that recognizes a board of education as a “person aggrieved.”

Representation for Pearl River County also argued that a notice about the decision to consolidate would have to be published before the 10-day deadline for the appeal. The Supreme Court determined that the requirement to publish a notice is to allow the public to protest a school board decision via petition, and that appeals for judicial intervention of a consolidation order need to be filed 10 days from the date the order was entered.

The county also argued that the Chancery judge should have recused herself from the case, but the Supreme Court determined that it was appropriate to deny the county’s request for a recusal.