High court sides with Lamar County schools in 16th Section Lands battle

By JOSHUA WILSON,

The Mississippi Supreme Court recently ruled for the Lamar County School District in a years-long legal battle against an Oak Grove company.

On Jan. 16, the high court upheld a lower court’s decision regarding a 16th Section Lands lease with Oak Grove Marketplace, LLC. The lease, signed in August 2002, allows the district to charge fair market value for renting the property and sets 60-day windows for rent reappraisals on the lease’s 10th, 20th and 30th anniversaries.

The school district reappraised the property in April 2017 and sought to impose an adjusted rental rate effective in August 2017. Marketplace, which operates a McDonald’s on the site, sued that same month, asking the Lamar County Chancery Court to declare that the lease did not allow any attempted reappraisal before August 2022.

In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court dismissed the lease’s language on rent adjustments within 60-day windows spaced 10 years apart as policy from the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office and not law.

The high court ruled that the board “was not making an untimely attempt to exercise a right conferred in the lease,” and was, instead, “carrying out a statutory mandate and, in the process, trying to ensure the annual rent, based on current fair-market value, was constitutionally adequate.”

On Feb. 6, the Supreme Court granted the district a second win for 2020, ruling in favor of the district’s voluntary consolidation with Lumberton schools. The consolidation, prompted by a 2016 legislative decision to dissolve the Lumberton Public School District, was voluntarily agreed to by both districts in April 2017.

The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors and the Poplarville Special Municipal School District sued in January 2018, arguing that the school districts should not have agreed to consolidate without giving Lumberton students living in Pearl River County to Poplarville.

Chancellor Deborah J. Gambrell dismissed the suit in May 2018, finding that Pearl River County did not file an appeal within 10 days as required by state law. The Supreme Court found that Gambrell did not err in her ruling and affirmed her decision.

Rick Norton, the school board’s attorney, was happy to share the victories with the board at its regular meeting on Feb. 10.

“It was not easy getting there, but we can now move forward,” he said.