The Columbus Municipal School District board voted at a special-call meeting Monday to authorize Superintendent Cherie Labat and board attorney David Dunn to investigate whether state funds allocated for the district have paid for private school students to attend the Golden Triangle Early College High School.
Last week, Labat recommended CMSD pull 44 Columbus students out of GTECHS next school year, ending a five-year relationship with the early college high school program. On Monday, board president Jason Spears said since then district personnel discovered that some of “CMSD’s slots” at GTECHS may have been given to rising freshmen who did not attend Columbus Middle School.
Specifically, Labat and Spears said, Annunciation Catholic School is listed among schools on the application where it asks students what middle school they currently attend. ACS is a Columbus-based private school that only serves students through eighth grade.
“When the program was started years ago under the current (memorandum of understanding) that ends June 30, it was for a public school (in those districts)…,” Spears said. “And students who are rising freshmen from those particular public schools would have the opportunity to apply as well as attend the school.”
GTECHS, which is located on East Mississippi Community College’s Mayhew campus, has 222 students from Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties, including the 44 from the Columbus area, Labat said. The school is designed for students who wouldn’t necessarily thrive, either socially or academically, in a traditional high school and allows students the opportunity to take college-level courses and graduate high school with an associate’s degree.
Students are accepted to GTECHS on an application basis, and home school districts receive state funds for each student that attends there.
Spears said the addition of Annunciation on the application raised concerns that funding from Mississippi Adequate Education Program allocated to CMSD but diverted to Columbus students at GTECHS is actually paying for some students who have never attended CMSD schools.
MAEP allocates funds to districts based on a headcount of the number of students in that district from the year before, Spears explained to The Dispatch after the meeting. However, they withhold a certain amount from the district and send it to GTECHS based on the number of Columbus students GTECHS reports having.
“If you have a student who is not a registered student at CMSD, they are not a part of that count,” Spears said. “Therefore we as a district do not receive funds for those students who are not in the count, but then you go to the next year and MDE is withholding dollars (that will go to GTECHS instead). That reduces the amount for students who were in the count (because the money) is being redirected to this program.”
Blowback from decision
Labat said last week she was concerned both about the rising costs of sending CMSD students to GTECHS — it would cost the district more than $130,000 in the upcoming school year — and that she believed Columbus High School could provide students with the dual credit courses and small class sizes touted at GTECHS.
The district’s decision to end its relationship with GTECHS has caused blowback from some in the community who believe the Columbus students currently studying at the early college high school should be able to finish their education there. GTECHS student Joshua Helton, whose letter to the editor arguing in favor of Columbus students continuing at GTECHS published in The Dispatch on Sunday, has started an online petition on change.org called “Keep Columbus kids at GTECHS.” As of press time today, the petition had more than 1,000 signatures.
“Out of nowhere the Columbus school district wants to pull the kids and the entire Columbus school district out of the Golden Triangle early college high school program!” Helton says in the petition. “The GTECHS school is a family and they deserve to stay a family!”
GTECHS Principal Jill Savely did not return a call from The Dispatch Monday. EMCC President Scott Alsobrooks said he doesn’t know enough about GTECHS’ admission process and “did not want to get into a he said-she said kind of thing” about which students are being accepted. He said he would email The Dispatch a statement breaking down the school’s admissions criteria, but had not done so as of press time.
Savely previously said the admissions process includes a written application, which must be filled out by potential students and their parents, followed by a round of interviews to whittle down candidates. The final students are chosen through a random selection program handled by a company in North Carolina.
Labat said she is concerned Columbus Middle School teachers and administrators are not heavily involved in the selection of students and that those teachers are the ones most qualified to know whether a particular child needs GTECHS or a similar program to succeed.
“Overall I don’t feel like the application process properly gives indicators to students at risk … of graduating,” she said.
In other business, the board also accepted a bid from Louisiana-based Advantage Roofing Construction to repair buildings on the former Hunt High School campus damaged in a February 2019 tornado that damaged school buildings.
The cost for reconstruction of the school, which previously housed Hunt Success Academy, will be $1,132,958.
Insurance will pay for all but $147,510, which is set aside particularly for Hunt Museum, which was housed in one of the buildings on the campus and not covered by insurance. Spears and Labat said Federal Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will pay for all but 12.5 percent of those costs, leaving the district to pay for a little less than $20,000, he said.