Last Saturday night, the inaugural class of seniors from the Winona-Montgomery Consolidated High School, formerly the Montgomery County School District and the Winona Separate School District, graduated before stands packed with family and friends in Tiger Stadium.
In looking at all the smiling seniors, it is clear that despite the legal turmoil and anger of some regarding the consolidation of the two districts, students simply went to school, and in what seems like a blink of an eye, the school year was over, with field day being held at Winona Elementary School and commencement set for the Class of 2019.
It was more than five years ago when talk of district consolidation of Montgomery and Winona schools in the Mississippi Legislature began making its way back to Montgomery County. People were incensed, and the local push back put an end to consolidation plans temporarily.
However, the next year, a bill dropped proposing the consolidation of Montgomery, Winona, and Carroll County school districts. It was met with major opposition. The Carroll County School District even held a mock funeral for the district in protest.
Soon, the Carroll County School District was dropped from the bill, leaving Montgomery County and Winona school districts. Passed by both the Mississippi Senate and the Mississippi House of Representatives, Senate Bill 2495 formed the future Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District as of July 1, 2018.
I covered the consolidation of Montgomery County and Winona school districts since the topic was merely a rumor. Neither school district wanted to consolidate, but the legislature ultimately decided they should. The legislature adopted the bill and every element that created it, and the local districts, teachers, students, and supporters had little to no say.
In 2013, when the first whispers of a consolidation made the rounds, I knew that soon it would be much more than mere rumor. Soon, consolidation would be a reality, and unless the two districts in Montgomery County worked together and determined how they would eventually consolidate, the state would do it themselves. And that is how it happened – state mandated consolidation, followed by a legal battle that continues even today, after the first class of seniors of the consolidated school district graduated.
Since the fall of 2017, there has been an ongoing conflict between the two school districts. The make-up of the school board, the eventual closure of the schools in Kilmichael, and staffing the new consolidated school district dominated the news for more than a year. There were teachers, parents, and those opposed to the consolidation speaking out at meetings of the interim school board, and lines were drawn in the sand – your side versus my side.
As I watched the various debates over the matter, one thing I did notice about those so opposed and outspoken regarding the consolidation, they were adults, either teachers, parents, or leaders in the community. There were very few students speaking out about consolidation either in opposition or support, other than one protest held at Montgomery County High School which was organized by students.
There was a lot of misinformation, rumors, and even outright mistruths as the fight over the consolidation ticked down to July 1, 2018, when the law stated the individual districts would merge into one Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District.
When school started, there were growing pains, especially with transportation, but after a couple of weeks, the kinks were ironed out and school settled into its regular tempo.
As I visited the schools over the past year, I didn’t see Montgomery County kids and Winona kids. I saw kids – kids learning, kids playing, kids engaging, kids succeeding.
In looking back in the three years since the consolidation legislation was passed by the Mississippi Legislature, I have always seen the reasoning on both sides of the consolidation issue, and some decisions handed down from the state capitol might not be the most fair or ideal to those of us on a local level. Difficult decisions had to be made as well on a local level that changed this community forever, but those decisions had to be made.
I always felt like something really great could be created from the consolidation. I felt this community could join together and build a new district that would outshine both former districts and all our neighboring districts as well. It could be a district the entire county could get behind and cheer on the success of our young people. And look at that, we are well on our way.
I knew it wouldn’t be long for our students to find their way amid the changes. Kids are resilient when facing change or challenges. I wish I were more like that. I wish we all were.
So congratulations to the Winona High School Class of 2019. Remember as the first graduating class of the Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District, your achievement isn’t just notable, it is historical.