Supreme Court rules in favor of Lamar Co. in school consolidation case

By HASKEL BURNS,

The Supreme Court of Mississippi has ruled in favor of the Lamar County School District regarding the voluntary consolidation of the Lumberton and Lamar County schools that took effect in 2018 after being opposed by the Pearl River Board of Supervisors and the Poplarville Special Municipal School District.

In a ruling issued February 6, the court upheld the May 28, 2018 ruling of the 10th District Chancery Court, where Chancellor Deborah J. Gambrell struck down a complaint over the consolidation of the district. Gambrell ruled that because Pearl River did not file an appeal within 10 days as required by Mississippi Code 37-7-115 – under which Pearl River County officials argued they were not an “aggrieved person” in the case – that the complaint must be dismissed.

“The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors is a ‘person aggrieved’ for purposes of Section 37-7-115, publication is not necessary pursuant to Section 37-7-115, and Section 37-7-115 is an exclusive remedy,” the Supreme Court’s ruling states. “The chancery court did not err by finding that the appeal was untimely filed pursuant to Section 37-7-115. The decision of the chancery court is affirmed.”

Concurring Justices were James Kitchens, Leslie King, James Maxwell, Dawn Beam, Robert Chamberlin, David Ishee and Kenneth Griffiths. Chief Justice Michael Randolph did not participate.

“We welcomed Lumberton to the family a long time ago, but the final adoption papers came through today,” said Tess Smith, superintendent of the Lamar County School District. “It was concerning for some staff and students, so I’m glad that it’s behind us.”

During its 2016 regular session, the Mississippi Legislature passed Senate Bill 2500 to dissolve the Lumberton School District and to consolidate it with the Lamar County School District on the Lamar County side of the county line, as well as the Poplarville School District on the Pearl River County side of the county line. A commission was then tasked with preparing a plan to abolish the Lumberton Public School District and to include the students of the former district in the Lamar County and Poplarville school districts.

The Lamar County and Lumberton school boards received approval from the state Department of Education to begin the voluntary consolidation, the first one attempted in the state. But in an effort to stop the consolidation, the Pearl River Board of Supervisors filed suit in January 2018 against the Mississippi State Board of Education, the Lamar County School District, the Lumberton Public School District and the Commission on the Administrative Consolidation of the Lumberton Public School District.

The Pearl River Board of Supervisors was joined in its efforts by the Poplarville Special Municipal School District before being struck down by Gambrell, at which time the matter was appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The voluntary consolidation, in which Lumberton schools became part of the Lamar County School District, became official July 1, 2018.