CAMPAIGN LAUNCHED IN SUPPORT OF SCHOOL MERGER
By Monique Harrison
FULTON -Supporters of the merging of Itawamba Agricultural High School with Itawamba County Schools are waging a campaign to change the minds of two county supervisors who voted against the transfer.
In a 2-2 vote earlier this month, supervisors denied the Itawamba County School Board's request to take over 434-student IAHS, which is currently a part of Itawamba Community College. Supervisors Tommy Chamblee and Charles Blaylock approved the motion, while J.T. Farris and Danny Holley voted no.
A fifth supervisor, Nettleton's J.C. McDaniel, did not attend the meeting because his wife was having surgery. The board's approval of the merger is required because it would affect millage levies.
ICC President David Cole said he and the college's board should not be responsible for overseeing the school that serves students in grades 10 through 12.
"The Agricultural High School is a local issue, so it should come under control of a local board," Cole said. "We are not a local body. We are regional, and we are in the business of addressing regional concerns."
Five different counties are represented on ICC's five-member board.
Cole said he thinks the merger will take place in time.
"When the people of Itawamba County decide they are ready for this to take place, it will," he said.
The partnership between ICC and IAHS was formed in 1948. Today, it is one of just four in the state. A similar transfer request was fought off in 1994.
Beneficial to both
Itawamba County School Superintendent F.G. Wiygul Jr. said both his district and IAHS would benefit from the transfer.
One of the biggest advantages would be easing of overcrowding at other campuses.
If IAHS became a part of the county school system, Wiygul said the ninth-graders currently attending classes at Fulton and Fairview junior highs would be moved to the high school.
Officials say IAHS has the capacity to hold additional students, although some additional classroom space would be needed to house the junior high students.
The junior high school would then be transformed into a middle school, relieving some of the overcrowding at Fulton Grammar School, which currently serves students in grades kindergarten through six.
Despite the advantages of the merger, it has its opponents.
"There are just as many people opposed to this thing as for it," said McDaniel, who said he's not sure how he would have voted if he'd attended the supervisors meeting addressing the issue. "There are people out there who don't want there to be a change - that say if the school was under different management it wouldn't be as good. They don't like change. I don't know what the answer to all this is."
There's a question about the merger's influence on the county's tax rate.
Opponents of the merger say the tax rate would go up if money currently levied from Itawamba County for ICC's support of the high school is moved to a levy by the county.
If the merger occurred, ICC would be able to request a 1.9 mill tax increase in Itawamba County, with money going to support the community college.
"The possibility of this minimal tax increase is there," said Itawamba County School Board member Eddie Hood. "But it's a small amount of money. And supervisors don't have to approve the increase. They have final control."
The state sets a millage limit on community colleges and school districts. Because IAHS currently falls under ICC, the millage levied to pay for $2 million in local bonds for the construction of a new building at IAHS maxed out ICC's available millage. Once the bonds were transferred to the county school system, ICC would be free to request more funding. In either case, only Itawamba County residents are shouldering the burden of the construction costs.
IAHS Principal Pete McMurry said he doesn't see the issue as a pivotal one.
"I have absolutely no feelings one way or the other," said McMurry, who moved to the school two years ago, after serving as assistant principal at Tupelo High for 10 years. "I have to work with both systems now. Whether it stays where it is, or goes to the county, it really doesn't matter."