MOUND BAYOU — Two schools will close in Bolivar County starting in academic year 2018-19 as a result of dipping enrollment, declining funds and diminishing certified teachers.
Board members of the North Bolivar Consolidated School District decided on the closures at a board meeting earlier this week after accepting the superintendent’s proposed cost saving plan, which includes closing the high school in Mound Bayou.
Mound Bayou stakeholders said the closing of their high school would erase a significant part of the historic town’s story.
“Almost immediately after [settlers in 1887] got the first women and children here, school started in the mayor’s home with his sister being the first teacher. So Mound Bayou has had an emphasis placed on education from its starting,” said Eulah Peterson, mayor of Mound Bayou.
There are currently five schools in the district — a high school and middle school in Shelby, an elementary school in Duncan and two schools in Mound Bayou. The Mound Bayou schools are divided between kindergarten through sixth grade at I.T. Montgomery and seventh through twelfth grade at John F. Kennedy Memorial High School.
Under the new plan announced Monday night, John F. Kennedy Memorial High School and Shelby School (the middle school in Shelby) will close. The high school has 228 students and the Shelby middle school has approximately 159 students.
All seventh through twelfth graders will go to the Shelby high school building next year, though superintendent Maurice Smith said the school will be rebranded and have a new name. Sixth graders and below will either go to Brooks Elementary or I.T. Montgomery.
“It’s disheartening to even think of these children having to go up to Shelby to go to finish their 7th through 12th grade years. The dynamics of the two communities are so different. We’ve got a pride here,” Peterson said.
Mound Bayou is often looked to as one of the first settlements in the United States after the Civil War to be founded by freed slaves. Town history records refer to it as “the first true experiment in Black economic self-determination.”
Mound Bayou’s founders “wanted a place where black people could demonstrate to the world that we are capable. Black people are capable of governing themselves, running a town, can be independent, that we could do this. And we’ve done that for 130 years,” said Jackie Lucas, a Mound Bayou city board member.
Earlier in the meeting, Smith explained to the packed room the district’s financial situation.
Since consolidating in 2014, the district’s enrollment has dropped from 1185 to 1089, which he said caused a loss of $750,000.
Smith, who came into the job in summer of 2017, said that the school’s fund balance was $747,448 “in the red” at the end of academic year 2016-17.
On top of that, Smith said the district needs about $3.5 million in structural and system repairs.
“All of this was examined by an expert,” Smith said. “And I don’t have to tell you. You go into some of our buildings, you know we have leaks. We’ve got foundation issues.”
In addition to these maintenance costs, North Bolivar Consolidated is facing a 3.5 percent decrease in state funding under the proposed education formula, which would give the district about $200,000 less than what it would have received.
“I’ve got to deal with that,” Smith said.
The majority of the district’s funding currently goes to personnel. Where most districts spend 70 – 80 percent of the budget on personnel, North Bolivar Consolidated spends about 95 percent. Closing the two schools will save the district $175,000 in principal salaries, Smith said.
Meanwhile, there are 15 empty classrooms at the high school in Shelby.
Though the maintenance needs at John F. Kennedy Memorial High School would cost the district about a million dollars less than it will cost to repair Shelby’s high school, Smith cited the space available in Shelby as one of the main reasons for choosing it as the high school location over Mound Bayou.
“You don’t have the space at Mound Bayou. You don’t have the classroom space, the cafeteria space, gym space. At Shelby, they’ve got a whole half of a cafeteria that’s [not being used],” Smith said.
Students from Broad Street High School in Shelby seemed generally accepting of the decision.
“I think it’s going to be better for the community. The schools are small anyway. I think it’s going to work out because we don’t get enough funds. The food is not good at all and 15 empty classrooms — it shouldn’t be that way,” said Tamariah Christian, a junior at Broad Street High School.
Since the district consolidated in 2014 to include both Shelby and Mound Bayou, representatives from Shelby have taken control of the board with three members coming from Shelby and two from Mound Bayou.
Some Mound Bayou students and stakeholders saw this move as a governing body that underrepresents them making a decision that will cost them an iconic part of their community’s identity.
After the meeting several Mound Bayou high schoolers said they would transfer to Cleveland Central High School before attending school in Shelby.
“There’s always been a friendly rivalry, but it’s an honest rivalry now because you’re taking the friendliness out of it,” said Zariel Bel, a sophomore at John F. Kennedy Memorial High School. “You’re forcing us to be together. You’re forcing us to coexist on a daily basis, and that’s not going to work because there’s always tension there.”