The Lumberton School District will voluntarily consolidate with the Lamar County School District starting in fall 2018.
"We'll start now," said Tess Smith, Lamar County School District superintendent. "I hope to meet with the staff of Lumberton very soon, actually, within the next couple of weeks. Meet them, continue discussions with Dr. Smith about curriculum, textbooks, things like that, so we can make the transition a lot smoother. If there are some things that we're doing that they can go ahead and incorporate now, whether it's handbook policy to systems that we use, it'll just make the transition smoother for everyone, and that's the goal. As little upset as possible."
The Lamar County School Board gave the Lumberton School Board a voluntary consolidation plan earlier this month, and Lumberton's board accepted the proposal Thursday, March 23.
"It's a great feeling to know that we can go ahead and move forward and begin the transition process to provide some stability to our students and their families, for this community, for our faculty and staff," said Linda Smith, Lumberton School District superintendent. "It's a win-win from our perspective, but we're, again, very grateful for this gesture by Lamar County. We're going to move forward and help prepare students for their future."
At a Commission on the Administrative Consolidation of the Lumberton Public School District meeting Friday, the Poplarville School District argued it was not certain that is legal based on the language of Senate Bill 2500, which is the law ordering Lumberton to consolidate with its neighboring districts. Regardless, commission voted to approve of Lamar County's voluntary plan, with seven members from Lumberton and Lamar County voting in favor and the three representatives from Poplarville abstaining.
Superintendents and school board representatives met with Mississippi Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, on Monday to clarify if the commission-approved consolidation plan was acceptable.
"Senator Tollison was, thankfully, able to give us some time on Monday, so we met with him briefly," Tess Smith said. "He said he felt like based on the way Senate Bill 2500 was written, and he's the author of that bill, that we could move forward. He seemed very excited about the potential for the state because whether we want it or not, there are other consolidation efforts coming in the future. He hopes that this one will be a model for the state where we decided voluntarily to come together, and I think that would help tremendously. If they would go ahead and let school districts know now, say, 'Hey, you're on the short list for consolidation. You might want to consider (voluntary consolidation),' so they could work toward an agreement together, rather than it be just tossed on them."
Linda Smith said, "These people have been very helpful in encouraging us to proceed with consolidation, and they fully support the efforts that we have made toward this voluntary consolidation. I hope it will set an example that folks know that they can have a say, have a voice, in their consolidation. I've encouraged the legislators that where they know they want to go next with consolidation to go ahead and put the word out to those districts that are looking to be consolidated, so that they know that if they want to have a voice in how it's done, that they should go ahead and begin engaging in those conversations. I don't exactly where we would be if we had been put into that kinds of a situation, but I would hope that we would be similarly situated, that we would have voluntarily done this anyway. Just to honor what our legislature wants to do and also to do what we believe is going to be best, ultimately, for our students."
Tess Smith said this gives those in her district and those in Lumberton a solid vision for the future and reduce the stress that comes with the unknown.
"Stress, yes. I cannot begin to imagine what it's been like for that town, for that school and for the community, so thankfully they have some answers now," Tess Smith said. "We've got a plan in place, and we're moving forward. There are going to be something hiccups, but we'll work them out."
Linda Smith said, "To have this weight lifted is a huge relief and a blessing to all of us. It's a huge relief just in terms of the angst that people have because of uncertainty. You know, we tend to shy away from, be afraid of, have fear about things that we don't know, and there was a great deal of uncertainty until this plan came form the Lamar County Board of Trustees. By providing stability and knowing what's going to come in your future, that helps people to be at ease and to be able to do their job."
Linda Smith said it also allows her to integrate things used by the Lamar County School District into her schools now to make the transition easier for students.
"You have annual expenditures, and some of those expenditures will last five to 12 years when you start talking about textbooks and some professional development and also some of the programs, software packages and such, that we use," Linda Smith said. "We want to make sure that where we can, we begin to bridge those gaps. I feel much better about the transition if we can build bridges and overcome barriers, and I believe that's the heart of the Lamar County leadership, the school board administrators and all. With everyone that I've spoken with with Lamar County, they also want to build bridges and try to make this transition as smooth as possible for everyone involved."
Lamar County's plan keeps schools open in Lumberton, so Lumberton High School, for example, keeps its name, but becomes part of the Lamar County School District.
"We're just adding to the family, and that's what we're doing," Tess Smith said. "I'm thankful for them that we have a resolution that, thankfully, most people are happy with. We're not going to make everybody happy. You can't do that. It just doesn't work that way in life. But hopefully Lumberton is happy, and we can continue moving forward together."
Tess Smith said the next step is for both school boards to pass official resolutions regarding the consolidation. Then, she said she can start work on things like organizing an official transition team and figuring out school board representation to include the district's new territory.
"We're just going to take it one step at a time," she said.