Board begins redistricting process
by Brian Jones
West Point School District Superintendent Steve Montgomery reported on early childhood education efforts at the March 28 special meeting of the Clay County Board of Supervisors. The board also discussed redistricting, although no decisions were made.
Last week Dr. Johnnie Rasberry renewed his appeal for funding for and early childhood education and mentoring program. Monday the board asked Montgomery to describe early childhood education efforts that are in place now. [According to the Mississippi Department of Education’s web site, in the 2009-2010 school year the West Point School District had 249 kindergarten students; one special education kindergarten student; 80 pre-K students; and 24 special education pre-K students. – Brian Jones] “The state of Mississippi does not have public pre-kindergarten,” he said. “We’re probably the only state out of our surrounding states that does not have public pre-K. I think in the long run it’s going to be a problem for us. But we do have numerous day care centers in the city, and we also have ICS Head Start. For the day cares here, there is a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and that is a voucher system where a low-income family can bring their child to a day care center and it will help pay the cost. Head Start takes the lowest income people and works with them, and West Clay has a pre-K program that they started I think last year. We also have Excel by 5, which is a program started by the city and the school district. In the early stages there was a grant, but that’s gone. It’s now being done by the school district. That program provides training for day care workers, and they have to get recertified. “The goal of all this is that the children are ready to learn when they get to kindergarten,” he said. “We will have around 20-25 students that come to kindergarten that have been absolutely nowhere, but that’s a choice of their parents. In fact, some of them – and it’s just a handful – show up the first day on the bus and nobody has registered them or anything. They just put a kindergarten child on the bus and send them to school, and they’re not registered and there’s not anybody with them. We need to try to reach those, and that’s what our Family Center at Churchill Elementary does.” Kindergarten is not mandatory in the state of Mississippi, he said. “That’s a problem, too,” he said. “You may have some that only start in the first grade, and then they’re way behind.” Pre-K classes help to evaluate childrens’ academic performance. “We do a mid-year assessment of the children in pre-K,” he said. “The assessment has a mastery level, an instructional level and a frustration level. Frustration means they’re not where they need to be to go into the first grade. Every child has their own individual assessment and plan to get them ready for first grade. Around 90% of the kids we had for pre-K at Eastside are in pretty good shape. They’re where we want them to be so they can go on and learn to read. But we know where we are. Children are not going to fall through the cracks. If they need extra help, they’ll get extra help.” “When can you tell that kids are not going to make it?” asked District 4 Supervisor Shelton Deanes. “We can identify our dropouts in kindergarten,” Montgomery said. “If they get to high school, it’s too late. What we’ve got to do and what I focus on is building pre-K. If they can read, they can pass…if they will do the work.” “So these kids that don’t go to kindergarten, they’re not going to make it?” Deanes asked. “That’s not necessarily the case,” Montgomery said. “The parent at home may be reading to them. You can’t totally say they won’t, but when you look at the data and you look at the data [in high school] it’s about the same number. I’m not saying they’re the same children, but it’s about the same number.” “What really worries me is that the governor has signed us up for something in 2014 that’s called Common Core,” Montgomery said. “Common Core is about 25 states, and we’re going to be teaching the same thing from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and we’re all going to have the same tests. We’ll be able to compare state to state. The problem is that everyone else has public pre-K and we don’t. The children in other states are going to be better prepared and they’re going to be ahead of us. We’ve got to catch our children up. It’s going to be a problem statewide. Next year we’re going to do Common Core in kindergarten, first and second grade because we’ve got to be ready for the test in 2014 that the third-graders will take.” Montgomery said he is very worried by the state budget cuts. “We cut $2.3 million out of our budget,” Montgomery said. “We lost some positions. Our classes are full. The more students in a class, the more difficult it is. That’s been a problem K-12. We had to do that because the economy is where it was, and the governor is wanting to cut more millions out of K-12 this year. In West Point, that would be about $600,000. We can’t lay off any more teachers. We’ve gone as far as we’re going to go. But if we lose $600,000, something’s got to go because I’ve got to find that money. “One of the big thing’s the governor’s talking about is the reserves the districts have,” he said. “We can’t deplete that reserve. There is no state money for buildings, so if something goes wrong we’ve got to be able to take care of it. We’ve also got to be able to make payroll. There are schools in the state that are going to struggle to make payroll because of these cuts, but we are not one of them.”
Following Montgomery’s presentation, Golden Triangle Planning and Development District GIS Director Toby Sanford pitched a redistricting proposal. “One of the most frequently asked questions I get is if we get these lines drawn, will we be able to run on these lines?” Sanford said. “You can’t change voting lines 60 days before a primary. It is going to be pushing it for you to be able to run on the new lines. Even if we send it off and get it back, you qualified to run as of March 1 to run on the lines as they stand. Unless a court changes that date to June 1 or after we get the cleared plan back from the Department of Justice, you cannot run on these lines if you did not qualify on them. To run on the new lines, the qualification date would have to change and you would have to re-qualify. “Another question is whether we’ll have to have a special election,” he said. “You are running on skewed lines because the county is at a 14% deviation, and you’re not allowed to have more than a 10% deviation. Normally the court likes to stay away from special elections because it’s straying from standard voting practices. As long as the county is making a good faith effort to try to get this done, it looks like there will not be a special election. The data did not become available until February 10, it wasn’t useable for four or five days after that, and it’s only been about five weeks. The only timeline that the Department of Justice requires is that you do it in a “timely manner” and don’t sit on it. We can show that we are working on the information.”Monday Sanford described the demographic shifts of the last 10 years within Clay County. Clay County’s population declined from 21,979 in 2000 to 20,634 in 2010. When looking at the county’s total 2010 population district by district:District 1: 4,362, a decline of 78.District 2: 4,343, a decline of 43.District 3: 4,308, a decline of 95.District 4: 3,774, a decline of 625.District 5: 3,847, a decline of 504.
Racially, the county has three districts that are predominantly black: District 1, at 64.1%; District 4 at 75.8%; and District 5 at 62.5%. District 2 is 43.3% black and District 3 is 48.1% black.
“District 1, 2 and 3 are going to have to give up population to District 4 and District 5,” Sanford said. “Because three of your districts are predominantly black, I don’t think dilution of the black vote is going to be a problem.”
No action was taken, and the board set up a special meeting Wednesday at 9:30 to discuss the matter more fully.