HOLMES COUNTY — The dust has settled since tornadoes tore through Holmes County in the spring of 2017, but the storm’s aftermath remains visible in the public schools here. High winds severely damaged some of the schools’ roofs. Now, whenever storms roll through it also rains inside the schools.
Tubs, mop buckets, trash cans and anything else that can hold water sit under holes in the roof to catch rainwater when it falls in.
“Water is literally coming into the school (when it rains). One day it rained and it rained really hard. A couple of the corridors were filled with water … the buildings are old, dilapidated, not functional. It’s really a bad situation for the kids there,” said Holmes County Consolidated Superintendent James Henderson.
In one of the school cafeterias, light bulbs had to be taken out of the cooking area because of the dangerous situation that would be created if they were to get wet from rainwater leaking in.
But it’s not just the leaking that’s the problem. It’s also the outdated pipes. Last December one of those pipes collapsed; raw sewage spewed from it, entering the building and flowing all the way to the bathrooms and school offices. Alonzo Washington, Supervisor of Maintenance for the school district, said that school had to be let out for the day until the leak could be contained.
And at one of the schools in Durant, a crack runs down the exterior of the building splitting it in two.
“We don’t know what could happen. It could just collapse. That’s my fear of it,” Washington said.
While the issue of rain coming through the ceiling and buildings cracking in half are obviously pressing, Washington is just as concerned for what’s not seen.
He knows that there’s asbestos in the tiles of the floor, and that every time rain pours in the asbestos gets stirred up. Maintenance workers have to be trained not to sweep up broken tile, but to bag it because sweeping it could spread asbestos around. He also knows that ceiling tiles and roofing materials that consistently stay wet are only naturally more prone to molding.
“That’s what’s scary. We don’t know if it’s mold or what in those situations,” he said.
Severe structural problems, mold and asbestos are very common in Delta school districts. Certain classrooms in the Leland School District don’t have heating and air conditioning. In West Bolivar School Districts, students can’t walk near a certain area of one of the classrooms because the floor is caving in. In 2018 North Bolivar Consolidated School District closed two of its schools (including the historic John F. Kennedy High School in Mound Bayou ) because it could not afford to pay for $3.5 million in repairs while also operating five schools, superintendent Maurice Smith said.
In the wake of the 2017 storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency came to assess the damage of the Holmes County Consolidated School District. Both concluded that it would “it would really be cheaper to replace these schools as opposed to restoring them,” Henderson said.
The goal now is to construct three new buildings and to do so by convincing the community to pass an $18.4 million bond issue. From 2008 – 2018, cuts to the education budget resulted in Holmes County being underfunded $14,868,991 by the state, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education.
Amid consistent underfunding from state government, local governments are often left to shoulder shortfalls and have consequently raised taxes on county and city levels. Leland voters rejected an $8.75 million bond issue in September but will have a second chance to vote for a scaled-back version of that bond issue in December – this time for $6.9 million.
In August 2018, Jackson residents approved a $65 million bond to complete infrastructure repairs.
Holmes county residents will have the opportunity to vote for or against this bond on Nov. 5, general election day.
Passage of the bond would mean new schools for the students of Holmes County, but it would also mean a substantial raise for teachers, Henderson said.
Money from bond issues can only be used to build or renovate school structures, but having the bond money would free up other money in the school district budget to give all teachers a $5,000 raise, Henderson said. His goal is to make Holmes County the highest paying school district in the state.
Debates about teacher pay have grown louder as the gubernatorial election approaches. Mississippi’s teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. During the 2019 legislative session, legislators ultimately agreed to give teachers a $1,500 raise, which many saw as insulting. Democratic candidate Jim Hood and Republican candidate Tate Reeves have both made campaign promises of raising teachers’ salaries.
Poor teacher pay is also a driving factor in the critical teacher shortage, which is disproportionately worse in the Delta, a Mississippi Today three-part series found.
In 2017, Holmes County had the highest percentage of uncertified teachers in the state; in 2018 it received an F accountability rating from the state.
“I walked into that system last year in 2018 … and I tell you, of the 205 teachers we have, only 103 of them were certified. I want to say 53 vacancies. Fifty percent are uncertified teachers and [people are] asking why we’re not doing well academically?” Henderson said.
In an effort to try to convince the community to get on board with the bond issue, Henderson, school district staff and students have been canvassing neighborhoods, hosting community meetings, visiting churches and posting signs.
So what if the bond issue doesn’t pass? Henderson refuses to even entertain that thought.
“That question has come up at every meeting and I would never address that,” he said. “I cannot fathom and don’t even want to put that in the atmosphere that that is an option. We can’t wait. Our kids cannot wait any longer. It needs to happen now. These are our children and we must do something for our children and stop expecting others to do.”