Quinyetta Kinner was sad when George Elementary School on Hunter Street in Jackson closed in 2018. She attended the school from pre-kindergarten until the 5th grade and has a lot of fond memories of friendships she formed that have lasted to this day. "I wish they reopen it," she told the Jackson Free Press.
Kinner shared what the school meant to her while admitting that it was not in the best structural shape.
"I learned a lot about myself. People picked on me, and I found out that I am stronger than I thought. I learned a lot. It was a great environment there," she said. But the building was in bad shape, she added, "like the painting slipping off the walls. It really was that bad."
Kinner will resume this fall at Hinds Community College, studying for an associate degree in psychology to become a social worker. Earlier this year, she graduated from Jim Hill High School in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Decision To Close Schools
In 2018, the Jackson Public School District's leadership decided to close George Elementary and three other elementary schools in the city: Brown, French and Woodville Heights.
The reasons included aging buildings, school architecture design and a decline in student enrollment.
The district chose to shutter schools with 200 students or fewer that needed costly infrastructure repairs.
"Although enrollment at Woodville Heights Elementary was over 300 students, (a) study revealed the school needs some expensive improvements," Jackson Public School District Executive Director of Public Engagement Sherwin Johnson said in a statement. "The school was built in 1969, and repair and renovation costs were projected at close to $4 million."
"With the corridors located outside of the main building, the school's design presents some unique challenges. Students must go outside each time they transfer from class-to-class and to the cafeteria. The school's students now attend Bates, Oak Forest and Timberlawn Elementary Schools."
In 2020, the school district decided to close another set of schools. In January the JPS board voted unanimously to close Siwell Road Middle School in south Jackson, moving the students to Cardozo Middle School. Hardy Middle School students moved to Blackburn Middle School. Barr Elementary School will also close down.
Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps told Jackson Free Press that many of the closed schools lie in his ward: Siwell Road Middle School, Woodville Heights Elementary School, Hardy Middle School, Van Winkle Elementary School and French Elementary School.
Discrimination in Ward 4?
Councilman Stamps, who brought a resolution against classism in June to the Jackson City Council, regarded the preponderance of school closures in his ward as discrimination.
"Where is the bulk of the population in this city? The bulk of the people live in south Jackson, so where are all the schools being closed in south Jackson?" Stamps asked. "It's just that the bulk of the people living in south Jackson are of a different socioeconomic condition than most of Jackson."
Pointing at Siwell Middle School, he said the district's little-reported action some years ago to move the International Baccalaureate program from the school caused some parents to withdraw their children. That, in turn, contributed to population decline, which became the reason for closing the school.
IB offers specialized courses to students and can boost college admission prospects.
"The population was increasing before (they took) the IB program out. All of these happened because of the action of the school district," the councilman said.
Stamps, however, sees something good possibly coming out of the situation.
"I believe with the leadership of Jackson Public Schools District and the community leaders we have, we can work together to save the schools (and move them) towards something beneficial to the district and the community," the councilman said.
"Schools are the centerpiece of neighborhoods; neighborhoods are built around schools. When you take the school out, there is a problem," Stamps added.
Ward 2 Councilman Melvin V. Priester Jr. empathized with Stamps but added that the school closure was unavoidable.
"This has been a very touchy subject. It is always painful to close a school, but I think the (financial) numbers of the situation did not leave JPS much choice but to shut some of these facilities," Priester told the Jackson Free Press. "I have got to have faith in the superintendent and the school board. I know they did not make this decision lightly.
"These decisions came out of trying to address the financial reality that our student population has decreased and trying to deal with the financial reality of needing to focus on putting money where we get the most return on our dollar. We have shed a sizable number of students over the last couple of years, so we need to focus on where the kids are right now."
Priester commented the impact of closing schools on the surrounding communities.
"There are varieties of impacts; the schools are believed to hold the neighborhoods and the communities together," Priester said.
"So the decision about which facilities to close, part of it was made by looking at, there are fewer kids going to this school, we can shift these facilities over to these schools that are not that far away, but there is a real hole left," the Ward 2 Councilman added.
Community Assets or Blight?
"Whenever we close a school it is a hard decision. (But) there are physical realities we have to face," Jackson Public School District Vice President Edward Sivak told the city council in July.
Sivak said that the decline in school population led to the inevitable closure of some schools.
"When we were (provided money for) the school district budget (in 2017), it was about $207 million. The budget we just passed is $185 million, and that is a function of families moving out of the city—10% decrease in three years," he said. "The reality was (that) we have to make hard decisions around schools, Siwell was about half full, and Cardozo had a newer building, less maintenance need, and we were able to bring the two together and still have room for growth."
Sivak agreed that the district needs to have a plan for the eight closed school buildings, which could become blight, much as the former Southwest Jackson YMCA facility and grounds in a residential neighborhood on Flowers Drive became in south Jackson after it closed in 2006.
"I have shared with the superintendent that we need to have a plan over the next year for not just Siwell but all. We closed eight schools, and we need a plan for all," he said. "They are community assets; just because there are no students there does not mean that it can't be something else."
Stamps emphasized to Jackson Free Press that those abandoned buildings can allow crimes to fester if not put to use, while declaring that he will want to work with the school district on a new use plan for them.
"If we don't have a plan for such assets, crimes definitely have a plan, I will like to work with you through, specifically, the schools in my ward," he said. "We definitely have a lot of community support behind doing something productive with those facilities. If it takes partnering with people (that is what we should do) to prevent the empty building falling into wrong use."
Stamps proposed putting security measures in place around the abandoned schools until they are put to better use. "An empty facility is not good. Crimes, vagrancy have a plan for it especially when it is not secured, not having constant security all day or night," he said.
School Impact on Real Estate
The city council also talked in that July meeting about the impact of the closing buildings on the real-estate values in that part of the city. Stamps and Ward 5 Councilman and Council President Aaron Banks, said proposed real-estate expansion around some of the schools took a hit when they closed down.
"I do think it is a failure when we don't engage the real-estate community and the business community," Banks said. "I hope that there is a way that you reconsider the closing on some of these schools."
Experts agree that public schools in an area have an impact on the price of properties, which in turn affects the property tax, and, therefore, the overall resources coming to the city.
"Conventional wisdom tells us there are many factors people use when determining where to buy a home," National Director of Real Estate Education Toby Schifsky wrote at kapre.com.
"The school district or even a specific school within a district can drive demand for a particular area. Ask any real-estate agent you know, and they will confirm that having strong schools and an overall strong district can affect home prices by as much as 10 percent over a neighboring district."
He said that with desirable schools, surrounding houses hold their values better even when there is a market downturn, appreciate more in good times and the impact of a good school district on a property can be thousands of dollars.
"I educate people all the time, 'You need to look at supporting and maintaining a good school district much like you would the maintenance of the roof or siding on your house," he said. "If not, both will significantly affect the value of your home."
Sam DeBord is a realtor and managing broker of The Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth. "We've always known that good schools attract families with school-age children, but recent statistics add concrete numbers and surprising trends to the storyline," he said at realtor.com. "The domestic home-buying population also clearly values the right school. A 2013 realtor.com survey of nearly 1,000 prospective home buyers showed that 91 percent said school boundaries were important in their search."
Property value holds better with good school districts, he reiterated.
"Buyers are also willing to put their money where their mouths are. One out of five home buyers said they would pay six to 10 percent above their budget for the right school," he said. "One out of 10 would double that to 20 percent."
It therefore goes without saying that if schools close down, that might affect the value of the houses.
Repurposing Old Schools
Ward 2 Councilman Priester said that the abandoned schools could serve other purposes.
"I do support the goal of trying to see if we can repurpose some of these buildings," he said in a phone interview. "There are a variety of things that can be done with these buildings. I know that the district is exploring the idea of maybe turning some of them into community centers."
But the uses of the buildings are limited, Priester added.
"You can't just necessarily give it away," he said "Before you can sell it or lease it, you have to show that it is fair market use. We are not allowed to give it away to a random nonprofit, and say, 'here is it.'"
The education board determines the fair market value of such facilities for lease, and the Mississippi secretary of state is officially designated to manage school lands.
"One (1) year prior to the date, when any such lands, not subject to competitive bid procedures, shall become available for lease, the board of education shall appoint a competent appraiser to appraise the land and report to the board his recommendation for the fair market rental amount. The board shall then determine whether the same be a reasonable amount, and shall grant the lease pursuant to Section 29-3-63," Miss. Code Ann. Section 29-3-65 states.
Both Stamps and Priester recently told this newspaper that the council is working with the school district to determine the best use of the buildings. While Stamps painted an upbeat picture of a resolution, Priester was more pessimistic.
"We are working closely with the district to try to come up with a plan," Priester said. "But at the moment there is no clear answer to this. Right now, we are having such budget challenges that I don't think there is going to be a quick turnaround in terms of trying to make use of these former (school) buildings.
"School districts are allowed to rent facilities if they can show it is a fair-market transaction. The problem is who wants to take over a school building that has a leaky roof and a poorly functioning air continuing system?" Priester said.
He said the school district is open to suggestions of how to use the buildings.
"People come to the district, and the district is wide open to suggestions about using these properties, and different options are being explored," he said. "One of Jackson's challenges is we are not like New York City, where a vacant piece of land in Manhattan immediately finds some other interested parties willing to visit and buy it. We are in a place where we've got an abundance of buildings and land to be used. It's a tall order to find people willing to use these buildings, but we are looking."
"We've so many blighted properties in Jackson," he added. "And the reality is once you close something down, it's often very hard to reopen it. The place doesn't get the same level of maintenance. So there is a very real risk that these facilities, once they close, will never come back into operation in a positive way."
From Schoolhouse to Film House?
When David Russell, who lives in Flora in Madison County, drove his white truck into the Siwell Middle School premises on Aug. 8, he was there to construct a movie set in the closed building. It will be an action film involving a bank robbery, he told this reporter.
"We are shooting a movie here," Russell said. "We have rented out this building from the school district because they shut the school down, I guess, this year. So we are building a set up in the gym, I am building the set. We are building a set next month, and we are going to shoot in September."
Russell said filmmaking took a hit from the pandemic like everything else.
"Mississippi film has been booming for the past couple of years. But it has been shut down because of COVID-19 since March," he said, adding that it opened back up this month with a lot of new protocols for safety.
So what was a minus to the people of south Jackson is a plus for the Mississippi film industry. Although the film industry has found a way to come back, the people of south Jackson can merely wish the same for Siwell Middle School.
Email story tips to city/county reporter Kayode Crown at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.