OUR OPINION: School bond passage helps Okolona’s focus

Voters in the Okolona School District cleared the required 60 percent approval hurdle for a $2 million school improvement bond issue Tuesday, providing badly needed funds to repair buildings, especially the landmark former Okolona High School structure, and install up-to-date central heating/air conditioning systems at Okolona Elementary School where existing units are decrepit.

After 465 absentee ballots were counted, the complete but unofficial total was 1,036 votes for the referendum and 627 against – 62.3 percent in favor.

Voting on Tuesday saw 812 ballots cast for the issue and 415 votes against.

“This was about basic needs,” said Mary Gates, a former school teacher and current Okolona alderwoman. “We had kids who were hot when it was hot and cold when it was cold. We also had leaking roofs.”

Gates also said Tuesday’s referendum was the first time she can remember a school bond vote being held in Okolona.

Some property owners expressed disappointment in a marginally higher tax levy, but conditions in the former high school (now administrative headquarters) and the elementary school were beyond bad.

Okolona, like some other Mississippi school districts, suffered in the longterm from white flight after integration in the 1960s and 1970s. Black students, whose segregated schools had been underfunded even more than segregated white schools, continued struggling, and became the unwitting victims of deteriorating communitywide support.

The 2010 Census listed Okolona population at 2,692, but the school district also includes areas outside the city.

Okolona School District was cited four years ago for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act with the old Okolona High cited as not being handicapped accessible. The district was told to meet federal regulations or face fines.

The district, because of academic failure, also spent time under state conservatorship.

Money in the bond issue also will enhance a new football field and help the Chieftains move from the current, aging football stadium on Highway 32 next to the National Guard Armory to a new field closer to the high school. Football is important in Okolona and almost every other Mississippi district.

Okolona once boasted on billboards welcoming people to the community that it was the “Biggest Little City In The World.”

Hard times, at least partially self-inflicted, cost Okolona that identity.

Positive actions like a successful school bond issue can pave the road to reclaiming a prosperous, progressive status.