The West Bolivar Consolidated School District faced three options for merging the schools. The town of Benoit will lose it’s only school and students will now have a 40 minute bus ride to school.

ROSEDALE — Years worth of declining enrollment and financial strain came to a head Monday night when the West Bolivar Consolidated School District decided to close one of its schools as a cost-saving effort.

Three towns comprise the school district: Rosedale, Shaw and Benoit. Benoit, the smallest town of the three, will be losing Ray Brooks – its school that serves elementary, middle- and high-schoolers. Students who attended Benoit will either go to school in Rosedale or Shaw for the 2020-21 school year.

“I’m really, really hurt and disappointed …  Benoit is going to lose everything. We won’t even have a school,” said Ruby Miller, the school board member who represents Benoit. “I’ve been fighting this battle against (the other school board members) for a long time,” Miller said.

The five-member board consists of two Shaw representatives, two Rosedale representatives and one Benoit representative. Jackie Lloyd, the school board president who also represents Rosedale, joined Miller in voting against closing Ray Brooks.

“I didn’t want the Benoit area to lose everything and with this option, they lost everything. I wanted each area to remain with a school. I know that once a school is closed in a community, that particular town goes down. People move away and they never come back,” Lloyd said.

Now, the district will consolidate from six schools to four. Along with Ray Brooks closing, the high school building in Rosedale will also close. Seventh through 12th grade Rosedale students will be housed in the current Rosedale middle school building. The remainder of the students will go to the Rosedale elementary school. Rosedale will also have a vocational school. All of the Shaw students are currently housed in the same building and that will not change.

Lloyd said that the earliest bus for Benoit students will now pick up at 6:15 a.m., with the bus ride lasting about 40 minutes each way.

Rumblings of closing a school in West Bolivar Consolidated School District have been going on for years, but never got much further than that. Shaw, Benoit and Rosedale all used to be separate school districts until 2012 when the state Legislature passed a bill forcing them to consolidate.

The same bill forced Mound Bayou School District and North Bolivar School District (which served Shelby) to combine into the North Bolivar Consolidated School District. Neither of these districts has been immune to tumult since the forced consolidations.

Both of these districts are experiencing the common rural dilemma of outmigration, resulting in declining enrollment and consequently less funding. Ray Brooks, for example, has a total of 161 students attending there for kindergarten through 12th grade. The largest grade has 20 kids in it. Benoit is about 20 miles west of Cleveland, the closest bigger town in the vicinity. According to census data, about 477 people live in Benoit.

“Our district still runs pretty much like three separate districts. Our schools are still staffed and have operations as if we’re serving 2,500 students district-wide. That is not the case. Currently, we serve a little over 1100 students and we have six schools,” said superintendent John Taylor at a community meeting in Benoit.

“Every year we lose a little more [students], we spend more, we lose more finances than we did the year before. We started each year a little more in the hole than we did in the previous year,” Taylor said. He reasoned that if the district did not take it upon itself to consolidate schools, they would risk undergoing a state takeover because of mismanaged finances.

Taylor presented the school board and the community with three options for merging the schools:

  • Option 1: There would be one high school (9 – 12 grades) for the whole district housed in Benoit at the Ray Brooks school building. Kindergarten through eighth-grade students for Shaw and Rosedale would remain in Shaw and Rosedale. Kindergarten through eighth-grade students in Benoit would be bused to either Shaw or Rosedale.
  • Option 2: There would be one high school (7 -12 grades) for the whole district housed in Benoit at the Ray Brooks school building. Kindergarten through sixth-grade students for Shaw and Rosedale would remain in Shaw and Rosedale. Kindergarten through sixth-grade students in Benoit would be bused to either Shaw or Rosedale.
  • Option 3: Close Ray Brooks School. The Rosedale and Shaw campuses would serve all students in the West Bolivar Consolidated School District.

Ray Brooks is the newest and biggest school building in the district. Having all of the high school students on one campus would have also allowed for a better course selection and a higher concentration of certified teachers. However, Benoit is a more isolated community and does not have emergency responders such as police officers, firefighters or ambulances readily available. It was also argued that closing Ray Brooks would affect the least amount of children.

The school board voted for option three with Miller and Lloyd dissenting.

“Either of the options would be better than what we have now,” Taylor said after the school board voted. “I’m ready to move forward. I’m glad that (the school board) made a decision, now we can move into the next phase.”

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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.