Aberdeen School Board member Tonny Oliver, right, asks superintendent Jeff Clay questions about a transportation plan for the district. Also pictured are school board members Jim Edwards and Sandra Peoples.

ABERDEEN – Masked up, members of the Aberdeen School Board and district superintendent Jeff Clay discussed May 18 what will and what won’t be happening with the ’19-’20 school board. After previous consideration, it won’t start early.

“I did advocate about a month ago a July start date because we just didn’t know what the world held. April 20, Monroe County had 75 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and I checked today, and it was 222. In four weeks, it’s gone up 196 percent,” he said. “Today, in good faith, I can’t recommend starting in July. I think we need to keep it where it is, which is August 3 for teachers and August 6 for students. I think at some point in time, someone at the state level will give us guidance.”

In late April, the school’s transportation contractor, Ecco Ride, exercised its out clause due to the pandemic, and a different approach to provide bus pick-up and drop-off for students added to Clay’s opposition to an early start for the school year.

The school board previously approved requests for proposal for transportation services, but there hasn’t been much interest.

After discussion, the school board approved for Clay to seek financial proposals for the lease-purchase of 18 school buses for the district. He preferred a seven-year rate.

“With some of our in-town routes, they’ll be okay for 10, 13 years. With some of those that go out in the county on rougher roads, they may start diminishing. At the end of seven years, in 2027, we would own these buses and at that time could start looking at selling some and adding a couple every year,” he said. “The worst thing we could do is after 15 years [is wait to purchase], and what’s $1.7 million now could be $3.5 million. We want to make sure there’s a plan in place, whether we’re here or not.”

Additionally, the district will hire bus drivers, which includes salary and benefits, and a shop foreman. Clay said there will be expenses with that position, but the right candidate will supply the tools.

“Can we secure enough bus drivers? I think that will be the most critical aspect,” said school board member Tonny Oliver, citing an already high demand for drivers.

Clay thinks the drivers previously employed by Ecco Ride for the district can be absorbed. School board president Jim Edwards asked about the application process, and the driver positions are expected to be posted on the district’s website.

A special-called school board meeting is anticipated soon to address transportation and air conditioning improvements.

While no action was taken, Clay and the school board discussed the potential of policy revisions for next school year, notably policies such as visitors wearing masks and having temperature checks to ensure student and staff safety.

“These are the types of policies we need to talk about as we move forward to starting back to school,” Clay said. “Just so you know, we have purchased 40 gallons of hand sanitizer to start with. We are in the process of purchasing 1,500 reusable, washable masks so we can give every student and staff member a mask.”

There was also discussion about the district’s rental policy for facilities, and board attorney Nathaniel Armistad seemed hesitant.

“I think school will probably never be the same. We’re almost going to have to treat the school buildings like we treat the school buses. Everywhere someone comes in the district, we have to make sure our liability covers them wherever they are,” he said. “The funerals, the repasts, usher board, King Solomon number 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, some of that stuff we’ve just got to let go.”

Clay reminded the school board a no visitors policy was adopted in the early stages on the pandemic and is still in place.

“There are things, like Mr. Armistad said, are never going back to normal. Do we now have all meals in the classrooms? I talked to [Aberdeen High School Principal] Dr. [Dana] Bullard today, and the high school has three lunch periods. Do we need to go to six lunch periods so we split everything in half? If we go into serving in the cafeteria, we’re probably going to have to get plexiglass like they have at the drive-thru,” Clay said.

Edwards is hopeful all school boards will get direction from either the Mississippi Department of Education or the Mississippi School Boards Association for guidelines.

“My thing is if there’s no guidance for 140-plus school districts, right now we can’t wait until they start the conversation on what it looks like for us,” Clay said. “I don’t want to wait until July when we’re two weeks before school starts and we’ve got to overhaul procedurally how we do this.”

In other business, the school board approved an agreement with Armistad Law Firm to continue providing counsel and a two-year grounds contract with AAA Lawn of Smithville. 

The school board also approved an agreement with Glimpse K-12, a product used to analyze financial and student achievement data to understand return on investment.

“Personally, I love this idea. I work in the training business, and it’s hard to determine the return on investment. We can see some tangible evidence, but this product shows if we get a real return or not,” said board secretary Patrick Lockett.

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