Cleveland public school students ride the school district bus on their way home following classes.

CLEVELAND – The Board of Trustees of the Cleveland School District said Friday it is proceeding with a special tax increase for school renovations after determining that an insufficient number of voters signed a petition seeking a referendum.

The new levy for improvements approved by the board earlier this month would add between 1.1 mills and 1.3 mills, according to a document provided to Mississippi Today by school board attorney Jamie Jacks.

Jacks added that the district is likely to pay back the money over 12 years, keeping the rate increase close to $11 per $100,000 of assessed value for district taxpayers.

The document Jacks provided Mississippi Today shows that the district was already assessing 1.51 mills under its 3-mill authority. The state grants school districts the option to impose up to 3 mills in taxes for renovations, provided less than 20 percent of district voters petition for a referendum.

At Friday’s meeting, Jacks said that based on current voter registration rolls for the school district the total needed to force an election on the 3 mil levey was 2,540 signatures. Jacks said the submitted petitions had 2,848 signatures, but 789 of those were not qualified voters within the Cleveland School District, according to Marilyn Kelly, Circuit Clerk for Bolivar County.

Jacks noted that those whose signatures were disallowed on the petition were provided an opportunity to prove they were qualified voters.

Jamie Jacks, Cleveland school board attorney

“What we did was advertise a couple of different ways to get people a chance to present evidence in case they felt they were wrongfully not counted,” said Jacks.  Jacks said they advertised information from the petitions at the local Court House, the district’s website and the local newspaper.

Cindy Holtz, the school district’s business manager, also came up with a tally of 126 duplicate signatures. The total amount of qualified signatures ended up being 1,933 signatures “which is not sufficient under the 20 percent of 2,540 to have an election,” said Jacks.

The decision allows the board to proceed with its plans to levy the tax and make preparation for the renovations at the new Cleveland Central High School and Cleveland Middle School, said Jacks. The schools are being used as the consolidated locations for students under provisions of a federal court desegregation order last year that ended separate high and middle school facilities in the district.

A district statement provided earlier this month, noted that “Some of those improvements include renovating the science lab at the high school, adding a 10 car canopy at the middle school and multiple renovations that are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires an elevator be placed at the high school so that our students and faculty with disabilities can have greater access to the second floor.”

“Additionally, the District is addressing all entrances and exits to its middle and high school to ensure they are ADA compliant and all of our students and faculties can navigate the campuses with ease,” Jacks said.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.