By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal

BOONEVILLE - The Prentiss County School Board has canceled its plans to hire a consultant and won't pursue consolidation of its schools.

In a 3-2 vote Monday night, two board members whose terms end this month rescinded the two previous votes taken over the course of 2010. They said board members coming into office in January should have input on those decisions.

Board member Rickie Davis offered both motions and was supported by board members Perry Walden and Ronny Kesler. Opposing both votes were board members Steve Taylor and Lisa Slack.

Davis, who was defeated in the November election and will be replaced by Shelia Johnson, has been a longstanding opponent of consolidation, as has Kesler.

Walden, defeated in the election by Jason McCoy, had previously voted in favor of both actions. However, he now says the new school board members should be able to make the decisions.

Both Johnson and McCoy throughout their campaigns stated their opposition to consolidation plans, and McCoy also said he did not support spending district funds for a costly consultant.

One persistent issue since late 2008 has been the question of school consolidation, a concept that voters supported in a non-binding referendum that year.

Facing tight budgets even before the nationwide economic downturn, the board asked for several consolidation options to be presented as a cost-saving measure.

Those options included constructing a single new countywide high school to replace the four existing high schools; establishing two high schools - one on the east side and one on the west side of the county; combining Jumpertown and Thrasher high schools and keeping three high schools; or establishing three high schools defined as a North High School, a South High School and an East High School.

The school board held numerous meetings in the various communities, and through the past two years, coalitions of parents and teachers have fought each of the three restructuring plans the school board has approved.

Between April 2009 and January 2010 the board approved three different restructuring plans, each time with approval by three of the five board members.

Though one of the plans adopted in the early stages was developed by an unpaid consultant with years of experience, board members decided to hire an outside consultant who could bring an unbiased perspective to the county's issues.

Board members interviewed two consulting firms in the early fall, and each of them would charge upward of $25,000 for the work outlined for them to do. The board then voted to postpone choosing a consultant until after November elections.

School board attorney Richard Bowen noted that if the school district wanted to make any changes that would require substantial movement of students, state board of education approval would be required.

The board's moves also must be supported by information substantiating that decisions were not "arbitrary and capricious" to withstand state scrutiny and any court challenges that might arise, Bowen said.

Slack noted that using the services of a consultant might help the district with long-range planning and financial planning, not simply facilitate discussions of possible consolidation or restructuring.

Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.

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