Kristen Ellis, left, presents a physics equation at Holmes County Consolidated High School.

Residents of Holmes County, one of the poorest in Mississippi, will go to the polls this summer for a $15 million bond referendum to increase teacher pay and build a new high school.

The Holmes County Consolidated School District board approved the referendum at a Feb. 28 meeting. In a release, the district said if the referendum is successful, the funds will provide an across-the-board $5,000 raise for teachers and build a new high school. Holmes County Central High School was built in 1958 and has not had any major renovations or upgrades since, according to 2017 data obtained by Mississippi Today.

“Our children are striving to be high achievers. But to inspire them to greatness, they need more highly qualified and certified teachers and first-class, technologically equipped facilities,” Superintendent James Henderson said in the release.

The nearly 3,100-student district is 99 percent black. More than a third of teachers are uncertified, meaning they haven’t yet fulfilled the necessary requirements to be licensed by the state. Last October, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited the Delta district to highlight an Advanced Placement program it offered.

In an email to Mississippi Today, Henderson said the bond is a necessary sacrifice for the district’s taxpayers, and that teachers deserve more.

“Far too long our teachers, not only in Holmes County, but even in the state of Mississippi, have been underpaid,” Henderson said. “I’m convinced that you get what you pay for! So, a start to recruiting great teachers is to pay them their worth.”

Teacher pay raises are a contentious topic this year outside of the school district. In the Legislature, lawmakers are debating a bill that would give a $1,000 raise to all teachers over a two year period, but some argue it’s too little. In Holmes County, the bond funds would increase a first year teacher’s pay to $40,960, Henderson said. Currently the statewide minimum for a a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $34,390, although many school districts supplement salaries with their own funds.

“When the bond referendum passes, we will be able to pay teachers a better salary—increasing their motivation, performance and student achievement,” school board president Anthony Anderson said in the release.

The school district is a high poverty one — according to Census data, 46 percent of people live below the poverty line, more than double the state average. The median household income is $20,244. Despite this, “it does not mean that we can’t take what we have and make what we want,” Henderson said.

“It is my job as the superintendent of schools to ensure that the voters are knowledgeable about how their tax dollars will be spent and the cost per household. In our case, most home owners will pay less than $100 per year,” he said referring to an increase in tax bills.

“Some of our parents pay more than that on a pair of Michael Jordan’s tennis shoes. So surely we can sacrifice less than $100 per year.”

Voters will decide for themselves on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.