Voters in Okolona went to the polls Tuesday to vote on a bond issues aimed at repairing roofs, fixing heating and air conditioning systems and improving athletic facilities. This was the first school bond issue brought before Okolona voters in more than 50 years.
“I am always optimistic and I said from the beginning this was about our children and if this bond issue fails we have failed our children,” said Okolona School Board President Jerome D. Smith. “This community was much too polarized on this issue and at some point we have to move on.”
Mississippi law requires school bond issues to pass by 60 percent.
“I want to commend our school board for taking this step,” said Okolona Superintendent Dexter Green. “This issue has been put to a vote and the people have spoken. We will wait patiently for the outcome. I and this board felt this was the right thing to do and we put it before the community.”
The election was for residents of the Okolona School District. Residents of the City of Okolona voted at the library at Okolona High School ballots cast there saw 459 for and 135 against. District residents residing outside the city limits – east Chickasaw County and extreme west Monroe County – voted at Okolona Elementary in the Parent Center where 356 voted for and 289 voted against.
Election commissioner Keisha Bogan said the 500-plus absentee ballots would be counted first thing Wednesday morning.
The election was not without confusion as there were 18 affidavit ballots cast at the high school and 34 affidavit ballots cast at the elementary school.
“Most of the affidavit ballots were cast because they did not show up with photo ID,” said Bogan. “We will check the name on each affidavit ballot with the voter rolls provided by Chickasaw County assistant Circuit Clerk Patti Stallings and have five days to tally those votes.”
The bulk of the bond is to be spent at the old three-story Okolona High School that now houses administration offices and on heating and air conditioning repairs at Okolona Elementary School on that same campus.
Okolona School District was cited four years ago for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act with the old Okolona High School specifically named as not being handicapped accessible. The district was told to meet federal regulations or face fines for the infractions.
The Mississippi High School Activities Association has also voiced concerns with athletic facilities, specifically its basketball gym and football field.
If the bond issue is successful the tax increase on a $100,000 home would be about $98 a year.
Green said the district has made improvements in academics since it came out from under state control almost two years ago.
The state was to released the latest statewide school test scores on Monday. Should Okolona schools have failing grades for the district, they could be faced with conservatorship by the state once again.
The Mississippi legislature passed a law two years ago, just before Okolona came came out from under conservatorship, requiring districts that are put under state control for the second time to be considered for consolidation.
Test results for Chickasaw County schools in Houlka and the Houston School District will also be looked at closely by the community and state.
Green was named superintendent of Okolona 14 months ago and was tasked by a newly appointed school board that was seated in December, to provide better schools and keep teachers and parents focused on the needs of students.
“That’s what this school bond election is really about, it’s about providing our students – our children – with the same learning environment that can be found in other school districts,” said Green.
Pamela Weaver, a spokesman for the Mississippi Secretary of State, said school bond elections are conducted “in the same manner as other elections are held in such county or municipality.”
Weaver said last week the municipal election commission is charged with conducting the election and the county circuit clerk would provide assistance and a list of eligible voters. Chickasaw County’s Circuit Clerk Sandra Willis is on medical leave and unavailable for comment.
Weaver said no one “monitors” an election. She said poll observers from the Dept of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s office may observe the election process, with the AG’s Office having the legal authority to further investigate and prosecute election related crimes.
Weaver said the Secretary of State w not have observers at polling places in Okolona.
“In fact, no notice whatsoever was provided to our office as to the holding of a special election in Okolona,” said Weaver. “No such notice is required.”
Anyone with an election complaint may contact the Secretary of State’s elections hotline at 1-800-820-6786, said Weaver, or the State Attorney General’s Office, who has prosecutorial authority in election fraud cases.