LELAND – After nearly a decade of deliberating how to address schools’ crumbling infrastructure, the board of trustees for Leland School District is considering an $8.75 million bond referendum to tackle projects throughout the district.

“We [the board of trustees] walk through it [the campus] every year and look at this and say, ‘That water fountain doesn’t work, that restroom doesn’t work. Now we need to get this fixed.’ But you can’t just do it,’” said board of trustees member Roy Meeks.

Aside from the structural problems plaguing the schools, it’s also common for classes to not have heating and cooling throughout the year.

“Either there’s air in this room or there’s not in the other room. During the winter time, there may be heat in this room but it may be freezing cold in the other room. A lot of time teachers may go buy heaters for their room if they don’t have heat in their room [and tell students] ‘Make sure you bring your jacket’ during the winter time,’” said Madison Bush, rising ninth-grader at Leland High School.

Last week, the school board held a public meeting to gauge the community’s thoughts on a possible bond issue.

Architect Gary Bailey laid out the following issues for each school:

• Leland High School: replace heating and cooling, renovate toilets, roof, windows and floors, install new intercom, replace gym lockers, renovations to the auditorium

• Leland School Park (middle school): construct science lab, renovate toilets and roofing, replace heating and cooling systems in halls, install new intercom

• Leland Accelerated Elementary School: renovate toilets, windows and roofing, construct science lab, replace flooring in certain areas, install new intercom, replace heating and cooling in hallways

• Leland Career and Technical Center: renovate toilets and roofs, replace “basically everything that’s in the stadium.”

Bailey also included wanting to paint the ceiling in the auditorium, though a community member cautioned that it was laden with asbestos.

Trustees and Superintendent Jesse King said one of the hoped outcomes for renovating the school would be increased enrollment and improved certified teacher recruitment and retention.

During the 2017-18 school year, 11 percent of Leland’s teaching staff was not certified.  The critical teacher shortage is at its highest point yet, with the statewide shortage is six times worse than it was when the Critical Teacher Shortage Act of 1998 passed.

“To even get teachers to want to come to Leland, one of the things that they look at in the interview process is a tour of your facilities. Research in recruiting and retaining is that teachers would rather be in facilities that are comfortable, warm and inviting opposed to a school that is the opposite,” King said.

Indeed, teachers and former teachers who attended Mississippi Today’s public newsroom workshops said a driving factor in the teacher shortage is the state of school buildings. Some said they would even prefer improved facilities over a pay raise.

It’s common for Mississippi schools, especially in the Delta, to experience significant problems with the buildings.

West Bolivar Consolidated School District has not had a cafeteria or gym since a fire destroyed both two years ago, though the district is in the process of reconstruction. Kids can’t walk past a certain point in one of the hallways because the floor slopes downward due to shifting foundation.

And in one of the classrooms, part of the floor is caving in and black mold has formed on the ceiling.

Black mold appears on a ceiling tile at West Bolivar High School in Rosedale, Mississippi. Credit: Kelsey Davis, Mississippi Today

In January 2018, North Bolivar Consolidated School District voted to close the high school in Mound Bayou, stating that because the campuses needed about $3.5 million in structural repairs it could not afford to operate five schools in addition to those costs. A bitter legal battle ensued with Mound Bayou residents fighting to keep the high school open but was finally decided by the State Supreme Court that it must close.

Like many Delta school districts, Leland’s enrollment has dropped over the years from 925 students in the 2014 -15 school year to 824 during the 2018 – 2019 school year. School districts are funded in part based on how many students they have. Declining enrollment means fewer dollars get allocated to them by the state.

“If we can get this bond issue passed and start somewhere, maybe we can get some of the students back that we’ve lost over the years. If we can get our attendance back up, more money comes with those students. We’ve been getting cut like crazy,” said board president Brandon Taylor.

Aside from declining funds due to declining enrollment, school districts have also been consistently underfunded. In the past 22 years, the state education budget has been fully funded twice.

From 2007 – 2018, for example, Leland School District was underfunded $4,609,201 by the state legislature.

In the wake of these enduring education budget cuts, local districts across the state have opted to propose bond issues, which if the community votes in favor of, raises local taxes.

Holmes County School District, one of the poorest in the country, has proposed a $15 million bond referendum to increase teacher pay. In August 2018, Jackson residents approved a $65 million bond to complete infrastructure repairs.

Bailey said he did not know yet how much the bond referendum would cost the individual tax payer, and that they were aiming to get that figured out with the tax assessor.

Now that a community meeting has happened, the school board is expected to vote June 17 whether or not to put the bond referendum on the September ballot.

The story was in part informed by discussions held at Mississippi Today’s Public Newsroom. To learn more about the Public Newsroom series, go here.

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.