By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, who have battled over several issues during a contentious campaign, are now fighting over the divisive issue of school district consolidation in the final days before Tuesday’s primary election.
On Friday, the campaign of Senate President Pro-Tem Billy Hewes accused Treasurer Tate Reeves of “race-bating” by sending out mailers saying Hewes wanted to merge school districts.
The mailers apparently were sent to Clinton residents, saying Hewes is proposing consolidating their district with Jackson, which is mostly black. The Hewes campaign said the mailers also were sent out in Lowndes County, Lauderdale County and perhaps Madison – all counties where city districts are mostly black and county districts majority white.
“This is race-baiting scare tactics, plain and simple,” said Hewes spokesman Keith Plunkett. “…His desperation is reaching new lows.”
The Reeves campaign did not deny sending out the mailers, but said they had nothing to do with race. Reeves campaign manager Justin Brasell pointed out that during the 2011 legislative session, Hewes was the sole sponsor of the Mississippi School District Reorganization Act, which proposed creating one school district per county. That would have resulted in the mergers of the districts in Hinds County, including Clinton and Jackson, and districts in other counties that had more than one system.
In a response, Brasell said, “The facts are what they are. The language in the bill is clear.”
The bill died in committee.
In an interview earlier this summer with the Daily Journal editorial board, Hewes said he did not think school district consolidation could pass the Legislature. This summer on the campaign trail, he has proposed the merger of administrative functions, such as having one purchasing clerk, payroll clerk or transportation director per county to service all the districts within the county.
Hewes spokesman Plunkett said, “Senator Hewes is not proposing the consolidation of schools. He is proposing that districts within a county share administrative non-instructional services that are now duplicative. This could save many millions of dollars across the state that could be put to use in the classrooms teaching our children and attracting and retaining good teachers.”
Brasell said Reeves “supports combining services like purchasing, seeking to replicate the best practices of the most efficient districts and looking for more ways to increase efficiency and minimize administrative costs,” but “does not believe that Hewes’ one-size-fits-all bill to mandate consolidation of school systems into one district per county across the state will benefit students, parents and educators.”
Brasell said Hewes supported consolidation as late as the 2011 session based on the legislation he introduced.
The two are battling to replace Phil Bryant, who is running for governor. The winner of Tuesday’s primary almost certainly will be the next lieutenant governor since there is no Democratic candidate in the race.