When Chickasaw County Schools Superintendent Kathy Davis decided to find a good use for the district's century-old, dilapidated school building, she started a massive search for funding possibilities.

After more than a year, her dream to turn the building into a community center is now taking shape, and her determination has caught the eye of Nick Walters, director of Mississippi's office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Walters has been so impressed with her efforts in rural Chickasaw County that he has broken tradition to help with the project.

Tomorrow, the USDA will formally announce a $75,000 grant to the building project. The award is a first for USDA - according to spokesman Ken Stribling, his agency has never given such a grant to a school district.

But under Walters' leadership, it may not be the last.

"He opened the agency to giving money to school districts," Stribling said. "Nick has worked hard on it, personally worked hard on it. Now it's happened. We hope it's a first step in getting more money for school districts. ... He changed the rules."

Now the USDA is seeking publicity for the grant, to get the word out to other school districts that federal money can be available to them. If all goes well in Chickasaw County, the renovated community center could ultimately be the model USDA is seeking to show what it can do.

And Davis is working hard to ensure that happens.

Because Chickasaw County is such a poor district, any extras in the budget must come from grants, and the grant from USDA is one of many she has applied for. The largest grant awarded to the district came in March, with $335,000 from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

In August, it received another $250,000 from the Mississippi Development Authority, through the Small Municipality and Limited Population County grant program. According to Davis, the recent grants will put the district just about where it needs to be financially to finish the project.

Renovations began in April, and the school board meets tonight to discuss the final phases of construction. Once completed, the building will provide classroom space for a high-school equivalency program, workforce training and access to online classes at Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi and Itawamba Community College.

More importantly, it will provide a place the community can take pride in and call its own.

"It is gorgeous," Davis said Friday. "I rang the bell, the original bell, this morning."

Sandi Pullen Beason is a staff writer for the Daily Journal. You can reach her at sandi.pullen@djournal.com

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