County schools decry consolidation

A local group’s quest to consolidate the Bay-Waveland and Hancock County School Districts hit a potential road block Thursday, when members presented their plan to the Hancock County School Board.

The Hancock County Alliance for Good Government–a non-elected, political watchdog group–has been pushing for the two school districts to be combined.

The group had previously approached the Bay St. Louis City Council and the Bay-Waveland School Board with mixed reviews.

It has yet to discuss the matter with the Hancock County Board of Supervisors.

On Wednesday, representatives of the group spoke at the Waveland Board of Aldermen meeting, and on Thursday, they made a presentation to the Hancock County School Board.

AGG member Ron Thorp said combining the two school districts could save the tax payers nearly $2 million a year.

He said a recent study by a committee appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour showed that school districts should be combined if they met three criteria.

The criteria included whether the school district has less than 2,000 students; if administrative costs are greater than $460 per student, and if academic performance is lower than average.

Currently, Bay-Waveland has 1,815 students, and its administrative cost per student is $873. Hancock has more students, 4,433, and a lower cost of $548 per student, he said.

Bay-Waveland and Hancock School districts also had high drop-out rates because of the effects of Hurricane Katrina in previous years, but those numbers have been improving, officials said.

Thorp said that Bay-Waveland has some of the highest paid administrators on the Coast with one of the smallest school districts.

“Schools were created for the children,” AGG member Lana Noonan said. “They were not supposed to be a venue for a bunch of administrators to get rich.”

Waveland aldermen said they were concerned about the high salaries at the Bay-Waveland School District.

“I read a lot about it, and it concerns me,” Ward Four Alderman Mark Kidd said.

Ward Three Alderman Shane Lafontaine said he was concerned about the effects of the high schools being combined.

“What are your plans with all of the school activities, such as sports, band, and arts?” Lafontaine asked.

Thorp said none of the schools would be closed, but rather administrations would be combined to save money.

“We are real top heavy,” he said.

He requested a steering committee be formed to investigate the possibility of consolidation.

The committee would be made up of two members of the Bay-Waveland School District, two from the Hancock School District, two from Bay St. Louis, two from Waveland, and two from the county, he said.

Waveland aldermen agreed to take the matter under advisement, and agreed to further discussion.

After receiving the positive feedback from Waveland, the AGG was greeted with some tough questions Thursday by the Hancock County School Board.

District Three School Board Member Billy Thomas quipped when the group discussed the salaries of the Bay-Waveland School administrators. “It seems like your problem is down there.” “Why are you bringing your problems to us?”
Thorp said it’s not necessarily a problem, but “an opportunity.”

“It make no sense to have two school districts in a community this small,” he said. District One School Board Member Richard Loper asked why the group only wanted to consolidate school districts.

“If we are wanting to save money, lets combine Bay St. Louis and Waveland,” he said. “That’s millions and millions of dollars we can save right there.”

Thomas pointed out that the Bay-Waveland School District is not far from the 2,000 student threshold which the governor’s committee suggested.

“I see people every day that are wanting to come back here,” Thomas said. “What happens when they go back over 2,000? The difference is not that much right now.”

Loper said the new housing developments in Bay St. Louis and Waveland will almost surely push the number of students up.

“I just read about this Jourdan River development,” he said. “If that happens, hundreds of new students will be in Bay St. Louis.”

Loper said the governor’s committee recommended that 10 school districts in Mississippi be combined, and so far none have been. The Bay-Waveland and Hancock School districts were not among them, he said.

Additionally, Loper said Friday that he does not like the idea of a steering committee with six representatives from Bay St. Louis and Waveland, and only four from the county.

“Our district is twice as big, but they want more representation from the cities,” Loper said. “That does not seem very fair.”

Superintendent Alan Dedeaux said Friday that in order to consolidate schools, both boards would have to agree. He said he is very happy with the way things are.

“We are pleased with the direction our school district is going in right now,” Dedeaux said. “Our student achievement is going up, our drop-out rate is going down, and we are continuing to grow.

Dedeaux said that he is proud that his district has the lowest millage rate in South Mississippi, and that the consolidation could actually force a tax increase on county tax payers, while decreasing the taxes for the city tax payers.

“It would be very complicated,” Dedeaux said. “I don’t know what the numbers would be, but its very possible the county taxpayers would have to pay more.”

The Hancock County School District’s millage is currently set at 40.53 mils, Bay-Waveland’s is 50.97. Other local school districts, such as the Picayune School District, are above 60 mils.

If both the school districts were combined, there would only be one millage rate county-wide which would most likely be in the middle of what the two districts are currently at, he said.

He said he feels Bay-Waveland has a good district, and it will continue to improve, as well.

“They have some good schools,” he said. “They are doing a good job.”

Dedeaux said ultimately, he does not feel like it is in the best interest of Hancock County to consolidate.

“We are proud to be the Hancock County School District, and we want to remain the Hancock County School District,” he said.

BY: Dwayne Bremer

The Sea Coast Echo

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