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Military dad returns to Mississippi, surprises son at Lawndale Elementary School

TUPELO • Staff Sgt. Michael Otts returned to Mississippi on Wednesday after an 11-month deployment with the U.S. Army National Guard to surprise his son at Lawndale Elementary School.

Lawndale Principal Talina Knight told Otts' son, fourth grader Corbin, and his classmates that this was a special week to honor heroes in our nation, so a guest speaker would be dropping by the school to speak with them.

When the "guest speaker" walked through the door to the media center, it was Michael Otts.

Corbin, 10, sat stunned at his table for a few seconds and waved at his father before embracing him.

The students applauded and waved American flags as Otts took photos with Corbin, his wife, Sarah Otts, and their other son, 5-year-old Kolton.

The 38-year-old Tupelo native was deployed to Kuwait on July 5, 2020, and hadn't seen his family in almost a year.

The at-school reunion came together last minute on Wednesday morning and was a collaboration between Lawndale Elementary and Carmen Gary, principal of Parkway Elementary School where Sarah Otts works as an assistant teacher.

Michael Otts had known he'd return home in May, but had just found out on Tuesday that he'd be returning the next day.

"I was surprised," Corbin said. "They just said that it was a special guest coming."

While Michael Otts was overseas, his' family was able to stay in contact with him through a video calling app, and he's been known to participate in the occasional PTO meeting via Google Meet — even with an eight-hour time difference.

Even with the relatively easy form of communication, Sarah Otts said having her husband out of arms' reach has been incredibly challenging.

"This is the longest we've been without seeing him," she said. "He spent our first wedding anniversary in Iraq and he's had to go to schools and things and of course AIT in the summer ... Touching the phone screen is definitely not the same as touching his arm. Video call helps for sure, but it's definitely not the same."


Michael Otts, a staff sergeant with the U.S Army National Guard, is all smiles as he stands with his family, wife Sarah, sons Kolton, 5, and Corbin, 10, after surprising his son with his return home after an 11-month deployment from Kuwait at Lawndale Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon in Tupelo.

Standing alongside his family in front of a banner that read "Welcome Home," Michael Otts said, "This is my whole world right here."

Otts is looking forward to relaxing for a few days before going returning to work at Syntron Material Handling in Saltillo.

When asked what he wants to do with his dad now that he's home, Kolton said he's looking forward to going to the beach.

Otts said he joined the National Guard nearly 14 years ago as "a means to better help my family out." He's a turbine engine mechanic, so he fixes engines on helicopters. His deployment to Kuwait was his second tour of duty, following a previous deployment to Iraq.

Knight was happy to host the reunion on her campus.

"We're just so excited to support our community members who are giving back to us so faithfully overseas and here in our own country," Knight said. "That's what it's all about."

Group 'reluctantly' suspends Medicaid expansion ballot push

JACKSON, Miss. • A group that was pushing to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in Mississippi is "reluctantly" suspending its campaign, members announced Wednesday.

The decision comes after the state Supreme Court ruled Friday that a medical marijuana initiative passed by voters this fall is void because Mississippi's initiative process is outdated. That effectively killed other initiatives for which people are already petitioning.

Organizers of Initiative 76 said in a statement that it is halting its campaign "until there is once again a functional ballot measure process in Mississippi."

"We fully support the call for a special legislative session to restore the constitutional right of Mississippians to vote directly on issues of importance, including Medicaid expansion, and we will pursue every avenue possible to restore the rights of voters in this state," it said.

The group was hoping voters would get a chance to vote on Medicaid expansion during the next statewide election in November 2022.

Medicaid is a health insurance program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled. It is paid by federal and state money. Mississippi has about 3 million residents, and Medicaid already covers more than 763,500 people. That is 25% of the population.

Supporters of Initiative 76 estimated that expansion would add about 200,000 more people, primarily those working low-wage jobs that do not provide private health insurance coverage.

Mississippi is one of 12 states that have not approved expanding Medicaid coverage to the working poor, which is an option under the Affordable Care Act that was signed into law in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and his Republican predecessor, Phil Bryant, have said they believe Mississippi cannot afford to put more people on the program, even with the federal government paying for most of the tab.

Because Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, it receives the most generous portions of federal funding for Medicaid. The federal government currently pays 84.5% of Medicaid expenses in Mississippi. The next-largest federal share goes to West Virginia, at nearly 81%.

Under expansion, the federal government would pay a higher share of the cost.

In its Wednesday statement, the group behind Initiative 76 urged elected officials to take action on Medicaid expansion, since voters may have to wait a while to make the choice themselves.

"We've witnessed unprecedented support for Medicaid expansion in recent weeks, and we are committed to keeping up the momentum that our campaign has created," the group said. "Our broad coalition of doctors, nurses, business and faith leaders and voters from across the political spectrum is not going away. We will keep up the fight until Mississippians receive the healthcare they need."

The state Supreme Court said Mississippi's ballot initiative process is unlawful because initiatives need signatures from five congressional districts to get on the ballot, but because of Mississippi's stagnant population, the state has only four districts.

The initiative process was added to the Mississippi Constitution in the 1990s when the state had five congressional districts, but the language dealing with the initiative process was never updated. The state dropped to four districts after the 2000 census.

Mississippi's two top-ranking lawmakers, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, have both called for a special session of the legislature this week after the Supreme Court's decision.

The Mississippi Legislature usually meets from January to April. Lawmakers can reconvene only if the governor calls them back to the Capitol. Gov. Tate Reeves said earlier in the week that he is still reviewing the Supreme Court case.

Gunn said he wants lawmakers to come back to discuss reviving the state's ballot initiative process.

Hosemann said a special session "may well be warranted" to discuss reviving a state medical marijuana program. He said sick people who would benefit from the drug should not have to wait to access it.

Hosemann said he believes the ballot initiative process needs to be revived but that it will likely take some time.

Because it would require a constitutional amendment, it would need two-thirds of support from lawmakers. Then, the issue would need to be put on the ballot in the next statewide election, which is in November 2022.

Gov. Reeves announces IHL Board, MS Community College Board appointees from Northeast Mississippi

TUPELO • Northeast Mississippi residents were among multiple nominees to the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board, State Board of Education and Community College Board by Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday.

Dr. Ormella Cummings of Itawamba County and Teresa Hubbard of Lafayette County were both nominated by the governor to represent the Third Supreme Court District on the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board.

Cummings serves as Chief Strategy Officer for North Mississippi Health Services. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Master of Education with an emphasis in Guidance and Counseling and Doctor of Philosophy in Educational and Counseling Psychology from the University of Mississippi.

Hubbard serves as President and CEO of CITE Armored, with locations in Holly Springs and Batesville. She received her Bachelor of Business Administration from Delta State University with a double major in Accounting and Computer Information Systems.

Reeves also nominated Luke Montgomery of Itawamba County to represent the former First Congressional District on the Mississippi Community College Board.

Montgomery is President and CEO of Montgomery Enterprises, Inc. He received his Bachelor of Business Administration from Mississippi State University.

Nominees from outside Northeast Mississippi include: 

  • Hal Parker, of Hinds County, and Gregg Rader, of Lowndes County, to the IHL
  • Wendi Barrett, of Harrison County, and Matt Miller, of Lamar County, to the State Board of Education.
  • Johnny McRight, of Washington County, and Will Symmes, of Harrison County, to the Mississippi Community College Board

The governor's nominees must be confirmed by the state Senate before taking their seats on their respective boards. Reeves made the nominations after some vacancies had occurred because members' terms had expired — a situation that meant boards could lack a quorum to conduct business if too many members missed meetings.

In a press release, the governor touted his nominees' qualifications and said they would serve their respective academic boards well.

"I am confident that each of these appointees have the credentials and unique and diverse experiences to help us continue improving Mississippi’s education system in a way that prioritizes students above all else," Reeves said. "Whether at the K-12, community college, or university level, I believe improving our educational achievement levels is critical to our long-term success and will further our efforts to make Mississippi the best place in America to live, work and raise a family.”