Biloxi, Gulfport at odds with county over vote for $55M bond to build new schools

What began as a $55 million referendum to build and remodel schools in Harrison County has turned into a feud.

On Oct. 16, the Biloxi and Gulfport city councils voted to ask Harrison County School Board to slow down its referendum that will be on the ballot for the Nov. 6 election.

It asks voters whether to approve or deny a bond of up to $55 million to build two new schools — a middle school just south of West Harrison High School and a combination elementary and middle school on the east side of the county, north of the D’Iberville High School.

The money also would be spent renovating the North Gulfport Middle School into an elementary/middle school and to increase security at several schools where district officials say people now can walk in unnoticed.

Biloxi questions money

Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said he believes students who live in Woolmarket and Eagle Point, which the city annexed in 1999, should attend Biloxi schools.

“We’re an A-rated school district,” Gilich said. And residents pay 43 mills to the Biloxi School District, he said, compared to 55 mills in the areas where students attend Harrison County schools. That’s a difference of about $250 a year on a $200,000 home, he said.

Plus expenses will increase for utilities, staffing and buses once the schools are built, Biloxi officials said.

Gulfport questions process

Gulfport Councilman R. Lee Flowers said the city does not oppose Harrison County spending money to improve the schools, but believes the county superintendent and board should have sought community input before, not after, the plans were drawn up.

“We have some concerns and questions about what the plans are,” Flowers said.

“Is it the best plan for the community? I don’t know.

“I’m not opposed to the end goal of this plan. The end goal is to decrease overcrowding and make our schools safe.”

A delay would allow for community input on what plan is best and needed revisions, he said. The City Council got involved because 40 percent of Harrison County students live within the Gulfport city limits.

He said some Gulfport parents are upset that new schools are planned for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, while their children will continue attending 51-year-old Harrison Central High School.

He also said the board needs to answer some budget questions.

A previous bond issue has been paid off, but Flowers said he does not know when the debt was satisfied or what budget cuts the board plans if the money, now part of the budget to operate schools, is shifted to debt payments.

County’s position

Roy Gill, Harrison County superintendent, rejects the cities’ calls to pull the referendum from the ballot. In the past 10 years, the number of students in the district has increased by more than 2,000 students, and he said it will take a couple of years after the bond issue to build the new schools.

Students in Woolmarket and Eagle Point attend Woolmarket Elementary, North Woolmarket Middle School and D’Iberville High in the Harrison County School District, said Gill. In Orange Grove, which Gulfport annexed about 25 years ago, students attend seven schools that are physically in the city limits but in the county school district.

“We’re not trying to take students,” Gill said.

“The law is very explicit that when municipalities expand their boundaries through annexation, school district lines do not change,” he said. The Supreme Court ruled that is the case, he said, and several challenges by cities were denied.

Harrison County School District is the only authority that can call for the referendum, the district said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“The law does not require the district to obtain the approval of either the City of Biloxi or the City of Gulfport before calling the election,” it said.

Even before Tuesday’s council votes, meetings were scheduled throughout the school district to inform the public of how the money will be spent. Gill said people can ask questions and the district will explain how it will commit up to $16 million to defer the cost, so the total project of up to $71 million could be done without a tax increase.

Find out more

The meetings are:

Oct. 23 at 5:30 p.m. at West Harrison High

Oct. 24 at 5:30 p.m. at River Oaks Elementary

Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. at Lyman Elementary

Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. at D’Iberville High

Those who can’t attend a meeting can get information on the district website about how the schools will be arranged.