School district rallying support for bond issue


Third in a Three-Part Series

Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker repeated the number “2,750” during a recent town hall meeting to discuss the school bond election, which will be held on May 22. For him, the number is about more than being successful in renewal of the 4.84-mill bond that is expected to bring in $22.5 million to renovate and upgrade the Hattiesburg Public School District.

That number sends a message, according to Barker. To Barker, having 2,750 school district electors support the bond issue shows that 60 percent of all affected voters – the absolute number required to pass the bond issue – support public education in the city. Those same citizens will step up to pass the bond election.

“We know that we need a certain number of votes – 2,750, to be exact, if there was organized opposition – to get us to the magic number for those who would show up,” he said. “Because there is no organized opposition, the threshold goes down by the number of voters. But, why chance it? Let’s get 2,750 names, addresses and phone numbers, let’s get them into our spreadsheet and let’s get those people out to vote.”

Barker, who has championed the Hub City’s promise for the future, bases the city’s success on its public schools.

“Our workforce, our economy, our neighborhoods demand that our students have access to a quality education and the 21st century skills,” he said. “We are part of one city, we invest in the next generation and we ensure that we invest in one incredible future. … Each generation has stepped up to the plate to invest in the next generation. That’s the beautiful things about the city is that we tend to do that.”

Ward 1 City Councilman Jeffrey George said renewing the bond issue is something the city has continually done.

“I think historically our city has stepped up to support our school district tax many years ago when we voted initially to put this bond issue in place,” he said. “I think it is important that we support it now and step up to the plate in this day and age supporting our school system. I think that having funding funneled into our facilities is going to be critical to see that our students receive a 21st century education. So, we’ve got to make we can secure funding by whatever means possible to invest in facilities for our students.”

City Council President Carter Carroll of Ward 3 agreed that the school buildings be renovated and upgrade.

“I think it’s extremely that the children have the proper facilities to learn in,” he said. “It makes a good teaching environment, and it is just most important that our children have the proper facilities.”

Barker added that the $22.5 million from the bond issue will move the school district closer to its ultimate solution. A facility condition audit showed that $35 million-$40 million of repairs were needed in the district.

“Is it where we want to be? No,” Barker said. “The only time we should be satisfied is when every kid graduates, every kid is reading at grade level and every kid is kindergarten-ready and every school is reaching A status. That is the ultimate goal and we are making progress toward that goal.”

Because the May 22 bond election renews a 4.84-mill bond that expires this year, taxes will not increase, Barker said.

“This in my mind is an absolute no-brainer,” he said. “There is no logical reason why we shouldn’t step up to the plate just as the others who came before us stepped up to the plate as those who came before us and pass this with a slam-dunk vote.”

Although there is no organized opposition against the May 22 bond election, Barker is aware that hurdles exist in two areas.

“The opposition is apathy and people forgetting to show up,” he said, adding that a Tuesday election in May is unusual. “May 22 is not the typical election date.”

In an effort to drum up support for the bond election, city officials have held town hall meetings, a door-to-door campaign and voter turnout calls. At the May 5 City Council meeting, a resolution was passed unanimously supporting the bond election because “public education is at the heart of democracy and is essential to the flourishing of its citizens” and “an educated population is a key to economic development and prosperity.”

Winning the bond election is important to the city. For Barker, the 2,750 votes would be a mandate.

“We can win by a little, but we can send a message by winning by a lot,” he said.