Jocelyn Powell loves playing softball, but sometimes she wonders if she’s trying hard enough.
Instead of a traditional packed-dirt field, Powell and her Murrah High School teammates practice the sport on a nearby grass field which she says makes it hard to sprint from base to base when it’s not mowed.
“It’s really tiring and exhausting and I start to get frustrated at myself because I feel like I’m not doing a good job,” the 15-year-old said.
Powell is one of roughly 26,000 students in the Jackson Public School District, which has long been plagued by aging facilities, something officials want to address with a potential multi-million dollar bond referendum.
The city of Jackson will vote on the bond issue Aug. 7, the day before the school year begins. The JPS school board approved the referendum in June and the city council followed suit soon after.
Voters will decide whether to reissue $65 million in bond debt — the district finished paying off that portion this year from an earlier, $150 million bond referendum passed in 2006. Proponents argue that voting in favor of the renewal will not raise Jackson residents’ taxes or other fees, while opponents point out that voting against it would provide residents with some tax relief. The referendum needs 60 percent of the vote to pass.
District officials say the timing is urgent. At a city council meeting discussing the bond issue in June, JPS Chief Financial Officer Sharolyn Miller told members “this is the only opportunity we will have to do this.”
“We were not able to address these very badly needed infrastructure needs with just our budget,” Miller said.
This year, JPS faces a $6.5 million budget cut from the state and will also spend $3 million on charter schools that operate in the district, meaning there will be $9.5 million less to work with, Miller said.
About $15.5 million of the proposed funds would be used to fix problems cited in a recent investigative audit the Mississippi Department of Education conducted. In August 2017, the department released the results of an 18-month investigative audit that said the district violated 75 percent of the accreditation standards public schools are required to follow. Some of those violations addressed facilities, including issues with leaking roofs and failure to maintain buildings that meet the state’s standard of safe and sanitary schools.
At a recent Jackson People’s Assembly meeting at the Grove Park Community Center, one Jackson resident, Vinson Gibbs, expressed skepticism about the district’s effort.
A self-described loyal supporter of JPS, Gibbs said he was concerned because the district received millions when the bond passed initially, but today there are still facilities needing repair and the state has attempted to take over for poor academic performance, among other reasons.
“They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’ll solve all our problems if we get this money,’” Vinson told Mississippi Today. “I supported the $150 million bond issue (in 2006) but the problem is that they have failed to use their resources adequately.”
The full catalog of projects is listed online; every school would see some sort of repair.
Larger tasks include replacing HVAC units at some high schools, adding science labs to all middle and high schools, and renovating several athletics facilities including a new baseball and softball complex.
Bailey APAC Middle School has a list of proposed projects that include restroom renovations, an upgrade to the auditorium and gym floor, structural repairs to the building, and more. The front entrance has been closed for about two years because movement of the Yazoo clay underneath the school has caused walls to shift and fracture, leaving some rooms unusable.
“With funds we could make this school a jewel,” said Don McCrackin, executive director of facilities and operations at JPS.
Despite the peeling paint and structural issues, the 1930s Art Deco building is filled with detailed architecture and today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although this an asset the district is proud of, the historic designation means making the building’s much needed repairs come with a higher price tag.
Uncovered light bulbs in the hallways — something MDE cites in its audit — can’t have just have any cover, they must comply with historic regulations, McCrackin said.
The auditorium’s wooden seats were originally installed in 1991, he said, and today many are cracked and peeling from years of wear and tear. To fix them, a specific shop needs to handle the relamination.
Just a half mile down the road, Murrah High School has its own list of necessary repairs.
On a recent visit to the school earlier this month, McCrackin gave reporters a tour of the school and pointed out various deficiencies in the building. On the second floor, a red five-gallon bucket propped inside the entrance of a men’s bathroom was filled to the brim with water, collected from a hole in the ceiling continuously dripping water.
Bathrooms on the first floor are “rather tight” for students in wheelchairs, he said, and the stalls do not have hand rails. Outside, soil erosion caused sediment to pool onto the cement in the freshman wing of the school when it rains. With bond funds, McCrackin intends to put in concrete and sod to redirect water and soil flow and redo those bathrooms so they’re more handicap accessible.
Powell, the softball player, said that while her school “isn’t actually that bad,” she can’t help but notice how much nicer things are when she visits other school districts.
“When you go to the better schools that are in the Mississippi area … you’re just like ‘wow, must be nice,’” Powell said.
Mississippi Today spoke to other students who voiced similar concerns.
“I just want to be able to go to school and say, ‘Hey, this bathroom is working’ and we don’t have to go to a certain hall because toilets appear messed up,” said Joseph Jiles, 17, an upcoming senior at Lanier High School.
Documents obtained by Mississippi Today show the average age of the district’s school buildings is about 55 years, with the most recent schools built in 2010.
Earlier this spring, district officials announced the closure of four schools due to ballooning repair costs and declining enrollment. Brown, French, and George elementary schools were selected because they each had enrollments with less than 200 students and faced $2 million to $4 million in repairs or updates. Woodville Heights Elementary School was selected because the school is facing $4 million in repairs. Barr and Poindexter elementary schools were consolidated in 2017 for similar reasons.
At the recent Jackson People’s Assembly Meeting, Murrah High School student Maisie Brown told the crowd that students are tired of talking about their schools’ crumbling facilities — they want these things to change.
“We know the schools are old, we know the schools are run down,” the 16-year-old said. “We know some of us may not have running water in the bathrooms but it’s like, how many times do we have to say something before someone actually listens?”
Contributing: Alex Rozier