Leland School District students rally with faculty members in support of the district’s consideration of a $8.75 million bond referendum that will fix issues in the schools.

LELAND — The polls for the school bond issue closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, but by 3 p.m. Wednesday the official results still weren’t in. “What do we do? What are we going to tell the kids?” Patansy Hampton asked, head in hand, sitting in an empty classroom after a day of trying to explain to students why a bond issue that would renovate their school likely wasn’t going to pass. 

When polls closed on Election Day, 615 of the 1,060 voters had cast ballots in favor of the bond issue; 445 voted against it. State law says that 60 percent of people who vote in a bond issue election must vote in favor in order for it to pass. The measure was just 2 percent short of passage, but at that point 97 affidavit, curbside and absentee ballots still hadn’t been counted. Eighty-two of the unopened ballots would have to be in favor of the bond issue for it to pass.

It was a long shot, but it was still a shot. It was just plausible enough to leave teachers, students and the community hanging in limbo, though most had the foreboding sense that the $8.75 million bond issue would not prevail.

I just never thought we would be sitting here 24 hours after we voted and still don’t know,” Hampton said. “It was just that close. I would have thought we would have had 95 percent vote in favor of the bond. We could have celebrated. Kids would have been excited about it. Now they’ve got questions. ‘Why didn’t they vote for us? What made them come over here and do that? ‘You mean we gotta stay here like this?’” children asked her. 

A broken cooling unit in the hallway of Leland Elementary.

Hampton teaches Algebra at the high school, where the air conditioning regularly breaks for days or weeks at a time. Students are left to try to learn in a classroom where the Mississippi Delta heat index regularly hits 100 degrees. 

She tries to keep the classes on task despite the heat, but it’s difficult because, “you’re constantly being interrupted with the lesson because [the students] are complaining about the heat. And these are legitimate complaints … so all day long you may only get to 40 percent of the lesson that you planned simply because of the heat in the classroom,” Hampton said. 

And in the winter, the same issue happens with the heater. Kids get so cold that they bring blankets to class. 

At the elementary school the children have heating and cooling, but the roof leaks, the floors are cracked and the walls in the bathrooms are close to caving in. 

So at the end of Wednesday when all outstanding votes were counted and the bond issue officially did not pass by 14 votes, it felt baffling to many. 

Leland School District Superintendent Jessie King attends a rally in support of the district’s consideration of a $8.75 million bond referendum that will fix issues in the schools.

“It’s disappointing because it’s all for our kids. It’s not about adults. It’s about the children who are in the district now and who are to come. And so it’s a little disheartening and disappointing, but we are relentless and we are coming back,” said superintendent Jessie King. 

The silver lining for the school district is that even though this bond issue didn’t pass, it is eligible to go back on the ballot for the Nov. 5 general election, if the school board votes to put it on that ballot. They meet Monday, Sept. 16. 

King said he felt that part of the work in getting the issue passed if it goes on the November ballot will be to address misinformation that spread on voting day. 

While the weeks leading up to Election Day were quiet, misinformation seemed to spread like wildfire on the day of the election.

“I think a lot of false information was sent out,” King said. 

The Leland Progress posted on Facebook a message on Election Day that aimed to debunk some of the rumors that were going around. 

“On election day I received a lot of screenshots from citizens of texts that had bad information. They were sending it to me to say, ‘Is this right?’ The information was things like wrong amount of taxes [to be raised], bad information about how the money could be spent and could not be spent, and then some people didn’t realize that the school is different from the city,” said Stephanie Patton, editor of the Leland Progress. 

Leland High School Principal Johnny Vick walks talks about the school’s structural damage Monday, September 9, 2019.
Peeling paint and a celling with mold in a multi-purpose room at Leland Elementary.

Others in the community felt that the bond issue didn’t pass because mayor Kenny Thomas didn’t support it. 

“I’m not going to tell you I supported it and I’m not going to tell you I didn’t,” Thomas said during a Thursday interview with Mississippi Today. 

Thomas also said that he has requested a meeting with the school superintendent, the school board president, the school board attorney, the architect and Patton to discuss next steps for the school. 

“I wouldn’t be sitting down with them trying to work something out if I wasn’t supportive … I hope the outcome is that we’re able to get this thing passed and hope to make some changes on some things for the betterment of the school,” Thomas said. 

The bond issue would have gone toward making repairs to structural issues in the school as well and building a new bathroom for the elementary school. Thomas said he thought the money would be better spent building some completely new school buildings. 

“Some of the school is solid. It needs some repairs,” he said. “But some of the school is old and would probably be a lot better off if it was torn down and something modern and state of the art was put in that area.”

Leland School District is not alone in experiencing severe structural issues. It’s an issue that plagues many Delta Schools.  

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. 

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.

Like many Delta school districts, Leland’s enrollment has dropped over the years from 925 students in the 2014 – 2015 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. School officials have said they hoped that by passing this bond issue and renovating the school, enrollment would increase. 

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 to 2018, for example, Leland School District was underfunded $4,609,201 by the state Legislature. Unlike other property rich districts, Delta districts can’t make up for those funds with local tax dollars. According to Census Bureau data, the average income in Leland is $31,727.

A missing sink in one of the bathrooms at Leland Elementary School.

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. It has also been noted that while the Legislature consistently opts not to raise state taxes, local governments are often left to shoulder a shortfall and have consequently raised taxes on county and city levels. 

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. 

Some supporters of the Leland bond are hopeful that this is what will happen if the bond issue gets put on the November ballot. Others, like Hampton, are determined. 

“I’m not a quitter,”  she said. “I lick my wounds. Get up. Fight again, because this is worth fighting for.”

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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.