STARKVILLE — Wildlife Dominion Management LLC will take over operations at the old East Oktibbeha County High School property after county supervisors approved a land swap agreement by a 3-2 vote.
The board’s vote was required to approve the contract between the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District and Wildlife Dominion Management LLC, an electronics manufacturer from Lowndes County. The matter will be sent to the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce for final authorization.
In April, the school board approved a land swap with Wildlife Dominion, in which the company would take control of the property in exchange for 199.7 acres of timberland. Both properties are valued at $300,000, and SOCSD can generate additional revenue from the timberland by leasing it to harvesters.
By law 16th Section land cannot be sold outright to a private entity but it can be swapped for land of equal value.
The East Oktibbeha High School property has been largely unused since its closure in 2015 with the consolidation of the county and city schools. SOCSD Board Attorney John Hill told The Dispatch on June 21 that this building continues to sit untouched, and the school district needed to find a way to utilize this building that would positively affect SOCSD.
While Wildlife Dominion will manage the property, a community nonprofit educational group felt it should be in control of the old school.
The Education Association of East Oktibbeha County Schools has hosted a handful of alumni events at the campus since 2015 and believes the building should stay in the community’s hands. Even though EAEOCS has been in existence since 2003, no educational or recreational programs have ever been created, but some members of EAEOCS believe the county should purchase the building for them to use for potential educational endeavors.
County supervisors ultimately voted in favor of the negotiation with Wildlife Dominion as they felt it would generate additional revenue for the school district, positively impacting the children in the community.
“Change sometimes is not pretty,” District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said. “I know sometimes things change that I don’t agree with, but you have to look at the overall benefit of this specific instance, Oktibbeha County, and I think our school board, the positions that they’re in, feel the same way. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have sent this to us unanimously.”
EAEOCS President Jacqueline Ellis approached the board saying she felt SOCSD did not follow the appropriate steps to initiate the sale of 16th Section land, especially properly noticing the land for sale. Board of Supervisors Attorney Rob Roberson said SOCSD presented an affidavit providing proof of the notice, and the school district followed all statutory requirements.
“I don’t want to give testimony to my board that I actually saw (the notices), but we’ve been told by their council that they have posted these things in the required places,” Roberson said. “I don’t know how they would prove that other than an affidavit.”
Montgomery, along with District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard and District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller, favored of the sale, while District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer and Board President Joe Williams, who represents District 5 where the property lies, opposed.
Howard said his vote was not for one side or the other but what he feels will best benefit the county as a whole. He said he does not want this to end a potential partnership with EAEOCS and wants to work with the organization in the future.
“My vote is to support the members that have been elected by the public to sit on the school board to make decisions that will impact our children for generations to come,” Howard said. “Therefore, based on them being the elected leaders and them being the decision makers and based on their research, this is the best step going forward for the Oktibbeha County School District and the children that it serves.”
Trainer said he is disappointed for EAEOCS but is glad there will be some activity in a building that has been dormant for the last six years.
“It is what it is,” Trainer said. “Hopefully, I still think both groups somehow, they will be able to sit down and work out some agreeable arrangement because in the contract it does make the statute for space.”
Ellis said her organization is taking steps to move forward such as contacting the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office and the Mississippi Development Authority for clarity on whether the group was denied equal opportunity to purchase the property. She said she feels the community leaders — SOCSD board members and the board of supervisors — do not have the community’s best interests in mind.
“It’s been conspired to eliminate our community from the very beginning,” Ellis told The Dispatch. “… We’re not giving up though.”
Called Moor High, East Oktibbeha County High School evolved from the Pleasant Grove Community School. It was built in 1960 as a segregated Black school. At its closure in 2015, it served as the grades 7-12 campus for all public school children living in that area.
While EAEOCS will not be using the building, Wildlife Dominion Owner Robert Taylor said he will provide a space in the facility dedicated to the history of the high school to continue on its legacy. Taylor said the journey to get this property has been long but feels his company will generate revenue and bring positive change to East Oktibbeha County.
“Obviously, the additional space will allow us to expand operations and expand production,” Taylor said. “Hopefully, we will add some more jobs, and it allows us to spend money locally. We hope that we can successfully be a positive thing for East Oktibbeha County.”