Currently, two bills have been introduced in the Mississippi Legislature that aim to change the current makeup of the Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School Board of Trustees. Currently, the board is made up of two members elected from outside the corporate city limits of Winona and three members appointed by the Winona Board of Aldermen. The bills propose electing all board members from the county’s current supervisor districts.
This hybrid board of elected and appointed members is not unusual for school districts that have been consolidated. In fact, there are two in mid-Mississippi, Holmes County Consolidated School District and Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District.
When the Winona Separate School District and the Montgomery County School District consolidated, the legislation allowed for Winona’s custom of appointing members to continue and Montgomery County’s custom of electing members to continue. At the time the legislation was drafted, Winona schools had around 1,100 of the county’s students enrolled, while Montgomery County had 242 enrolled. That is why Winona ended up with three seats on the board versus Montgomery County’s two seats – the legislation was based on student representation in each district not registered voters.
This year, when the Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School Board of Trustees voted to increase its millage request to outfit two school resource officers and fund a program to increase student achievement, particularly on third grade reading, push back from those living outside the city limits of Winona was strong. Since the consolidation, county residents outside of Winona saw their school millage rate increase by nearly 10 mils, when as state officials said in favor of the consolidation, merging the schools would save around $3 million each year.
However, that is if the districts were still receiving the same amount of funding from the state, which they are not. According to Dr. Teresa Jackson, Superintendent of Education for Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District, in the last two years, the consolidated school district had to increase its millage request by $400,000 to make up for the $2,689,535 the district did not receive from the state.
No one wants an increase in taxes – NO ONE, and I understand the concerns from those living outside of the former Winona Separate School District who saw a greater increase in ad valorem taxes. Do I think the Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District is frivolously spending taxpayers’ money? Absolutely not.
I do agree that by electing every member of the school board it will provide a better representation for all citizens of Montgomery County. Just remember, elected or appointed, the school board has the power to raise ad valorem taxes according to state law. The board submits its request to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, and it is the supervisors’ responsibilities to set the county’s millage rate. The board of supervisors has to accept the school board’s request and set the millage rate, even if the supervisors disagree with the amount requested.
The Winona Separate School District and the City of Winona have a long-held tradition of appointing only those with children currently enrolled in a Winona school. The tradition came to be to ensure the school board had the students’ best interest at heart when making decisions regarding the school district. And historically speaking, Winona Separate School District has been very successful while employing that tradition in appointing members to the board.
I’ve been a reporter for more than 20 years now, and I have covered several school boards over the years. It has been my observation that board members with a personal connection with the district, either as a parent or a retired teacher, are more likely to make decisions based on how it will affect students rather than taxpayers. Of course, they, themselves, are taxpayers, so they will also feel the pinch of increased taxes as well.
And then there are some board members who only serve to keep taxes low – which can be good and bad. Sometimes those type of board members will vote against something necessary for growing students just because of the cost, and other times, they help keep big ideas – ideas the school district will never be able to afford – from becoming a reality.
That being said, I feel the first priority of a school board member is to properly educate the students of the school district. When I say “properly,” I mean to educate students so they are proficient based on the state accountability rating. As leaders, financing that endeavor is up to them, as state law allows.
Whether a school board members is elected or appointed, voters need to ensure that the priority of each board member is where it should be – on the students.