Kendric Travis and youth
Kendric Travis, director of Coahoma County Youth Outreach (center) interacts with kids playing outside of the facility Credit: Kendric Travis

CLARKSDALE – A youth enrichment program is among those facing cuts as Coahoma County works to craft a budget for next year.

With time running out to finalize a budget by October 1, Coahoma supervisors are looking to combine a tax increase with cuts to the youth program and other services. The moves are necessary, county officials say, to balance a roughly $28 million budget, which includes the construction of a new $12 million detention center. 

Although other county departments are likely to see their budgets reduced, cutting the youth program, which is designed to keep kids busy and out of trouble, to make room in the budget for a new jail has raised eyebrows in Coahoma County.

The board of supervisors created Coahoma County Youth Outreach (CCYO) in 2012 as a county-wide recreation and enrichment program located on Wildcat Drive in a facility formerly known as the Expo Center.

With a staff of about four, the youth outreach program serves over 350 youths, ages 5 to 18, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the school year and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m in the summer. A year-long membership costs residents $25, said Kendric Travis, director of the program.

Over time, the mission of the youth program expanded to include activities not only for young people, but for adults and senior citizens as well as hosting back-to-school giveaways, summer feeding programs and charity basketball games.

“I grew up in an area something like this. We didn’t have a lot, but you always had somebody to pull you into sports. The kids up here, that’s (they’re) way out. They only (go) to school to play sports. You take that ball from them, and they gone to the streets,” said Travis.

CCYO board members, appointed by supervisors to oversee the program, said they felt blindsided by the announcement of cuts. However, Morgan Wood, Coahoma County administrator, said the program isn’t being cut – they just won’t get as much funding as they have in the past.

County officials acknowledge CCYO’s importance, but say there’s no way around upgrading the jail, where on Thursday a prisoner named James Johnson III escaped. Johnson was convicted of murder in 2016.

Otis Griffin, special projects manager for the county, said the new jail complex “would be a world of difference.”

“This isn’t a need or a want, this is a have-to-have. … And we realize nobody wants jails, but you have to have them,” Griffin said. 

Paul Pearson, the president of the board of supervisors and its longest serving member, echoed Wood, the administrator, telling Mississippi Today in a phone interview that the county wants to keep the youth program and would possibly continue to fund it for “a year or two.”

Eventually, Pearson said another organization, such as the Boys & Girls Club of the Mississippi Delta, could give the program financial stability, apply for grants through charities and get other revenues from places and organizations the county could not get.

Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, from left: Paul Pearson, Pat Davis, Derrell Washington, Johnny Newson and Will Young Credit: Coahoma County Board of Supervisors Facebook

Currently, the county provides $40,000 to two Boys & Girls Club programs, one at Jonestown Elementary School and the other housed at CCYO. The supervisors provide roughly $500,000 to CCYO, but Travis said they have come under budget every year,  never spending all of the money they are allocated.

Travis said that funding goes to operating expenses; the organization fundraises to pay for field trips.

“When I take these kids out on trips, that money don’t come out of the budget. I have to raise that money by selling concessions,” said Travis. “I’m in Wal-Mart or somewhere every morning, getting chips and drinks and stuff to take these kids on trips that don’t cost them a dime.”

He added that the bus used to transport the kids was also purchased through selling concessions.

“I bought that bus, so I can take my kids from here to Sasse Park to practice. We rode that bus for baseball last year to Tunica two times a week to play games.”

At a meeting on August 9, the program’s advisory members questioned the future of their program, wondering if they could change their fate and fight to keep their program off the chopping block. Throughout the meeting, several people said the program was making a positive impact on the community.

Research also supports the effectiveness of such programs. For example, a 2015 National Institutes of Health study cites previous studies finding “associations between both parental supervision and unstructured time after school to delinquent behavior, substance use, high-risk sexual behavior, risk-taking behaviors, and risk of victimization.”

“By providing a safe-haven and supervised time after school, teaching and promoting new skills, and offering opportunities for positive adult and peer interaction, after-school programs have the potential to curb juvenile crime and positively impact youth developmental outcomes both short and long-term,” the report’s authors write.

Sheriff Charles Jones said the current jail needs to be replaced. The current jail is located in a two-story, dingy building with a crooked, crumbling foundation on Sunflower Avenue. The top of building appears to be splitting in half; atop it sits a bent, unsteady roof. Leading up to the building, a makeshift ramp has been fashioned out of concrete.

“You see that? We had to do that, so people wouldn’t fall (referring to the ramp). The foundation got so bad we had to put concrete right there,” Jones said on a recent tour.

Inside, on the second floor, where business operations take place, is damage caused by leaky roofs, missing floor tiles, wires hanging from the ceiling, rain-filled garbage cans, and discolored furniture and walls. The sheriff added that there are doors that won’t close, and ceilings that are caving.

Originally constructed in 1996 at a cost of $5 million, the 177-bed facility is deteriorating faster than the maintenance crew can fix it. Pearson, the Coahoma board president, said the jail opened six months after he took office in 1996, and “needless to say we felt like the jail probably should have lasted way longer than that.”

The Coahoma County Board of Supervisors decided to get the ball rolling on a new jail, but it took years, many discussions, and outside architects to confirm that a new jail was needed before this could take place.

“I wanted to make sure that we had to have a jail. I wanted to make sure we had enough money for what we were trying to build and try to look out for the taxpayers, so I was a hard sell. It took them a long time to try to convince me,” Pearson said of the need for a new jail.

Under construction 3.2 miles away, on U.S. 49, is the one-story, 4,500 square foot Coahoma County Justice Complex, which will house the justice court, sheriff’s office and a smaller, 155-capacity, jail.

In early June, construction workers on the site building the new Coahoma County Justice Complex in Clarksdale Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

To help pay for the new jail, supervisors will consider a budget that calls for unspecified cuts to 25 out the county’s 55 departments. The plan calls for increasing taxes by 2 mills for the next five years. Mills, which make up the millage rate, represent property values used to calculate local property taxes. One mill equals $1 in taxes per 1,000 in tax-assessed value.

But some Coahoma County parents see a financial benefit to keeping the youth program intact – both for families and the community.

Angela Gardner-Chestnut, a single mother with three young boys between the ages of 8 and 14, said this program benefits her family in multiple ways. It provides a safe and secure atmosphere, it challenges her kids socially and academically and it’s inexpensive compared to $500 per month she would pay for day care, she said.

“It reinforces what’s being taught in schools with helping the children develop confidence and social skills at a very young age,” Gardner-Chestnut said.

“They have taken (the kids) so many places — from professional football games to professional basketball games, softball, we even went to see professional hockey players. Some of these kids have never ever been out of Clarksdale. Never. I think it’s the best program.”

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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.