Helena-West Helena stands as a grand example of a community that hasn’t realized its full potential.
Our community has the ingredients required for greatness and a lot of good, hard working people who
want to go to work, raise their families, and live in a safe community with good schools and a high quality
of life. We have suffered through some tough times, but the people of this community have sacrificed
repeatedly to try and make things better.
That’s why the stories about the Helena-West School Board’s actions at their last meeting saddened me
deeply. Our community rallied around our schools on March 14, 2017, and passed a 9.75 mill increase
in our property taxes to build a new high school and renovate the school’s athletic facilities in a vote that
most of us believed signaled a new day in our work to have great schools and a great community. The
School Board voted unanimously on those facility plans more than once. The members of the school
board laid out those plans during the campaign for the millage increase and highlighted the plans for the
renovation and addition to the high school gymnasium throughout the process.
It was all right there. Only School Board member Janice Williams wasn’t on the board at the time,
although on the day of the election she did post on Facebook that she voted yes. All of the other
members were there and campaigned for it. The school district promised the voters that this would be
done and even unveiled artist renderings of those plans for the CHS Gymnasium every time district
officials and board members made a presentation advocating for the increase.
The district gave their word that if the voters trusted them with additional tax revenue then the community
would receive this comprehensive upgrade of our facilities to include a new state-of-the-art high school
with an auditorium and renovated athletic facilities. When I left office, all of the projects in the plan
except the gymnasium had been bid out and were under contract. Everything was on-budget. The plans
for the gym had been completed and were at the required state agencies for approval. They have been
approved and the next step was for the Board to give the architect the authority to move forward with
bidding and preparation of the final contract.
And, just like a Shakespearean tragedy, we had the moment of betrayal. Earnest Simpson, Jr., in a
moment where he cast himself as a modern-day Brutus just four days before the Ides of March, told the
world, “I was against this from the start.” I couldn’t believe it. Mr. Simpson voted for these plans
repeatedly. In our meetings, he never raised any objections to any part of the plans. He campaigned
independently and with me for this plan. His statement at the board meeting simply wasn’t true. It’s a
tragic moment for this community that needs leaders to be truthful about everything, good and bad.
Loistyne Burrell, who served HWHSD for 50 years, spoke up and stood for keeping the district’s promise
and doing the right thing. She stood for respecting the will of the people and completing the plan that the
residents of this district voted for. The other five board members sat silent and tabled the issue until the
April meeting. The silver lining is that means the issue isn’t dead.
The School Board will get another chance in April to respect the people’s will and keep their promise to
do the full-scale renovation and addition to the CHS Gymnasium. They can move forward with the plan
and keep the tenuous bonds of trust between this community and its public school district from breaking.
My prayer is that the board does what is right by the voters and by the kids.
A board vote to break that trust leads to so many more troubling questions. If they aren’t going to spend
the money as promised, then what are they going to spend it on? What are they going to do with that
estimated $2.5 million? And the Board can’t legitimately argue that they can’t afford it because the
article Tuesday detailed that the district has second-lien bonding authority in place for any possible
increases in costs that are unexpected. The school district made a promise to the community and its
students. The people voted for it based on those promises. We don’t need another governmental body
ignoring the will of the voters in this community in moves reminiscent of the City Council’s efforts to
overturn the vote of the people to reapportion that body.
In closing, I am reminded of the words from the James 4:17, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought
to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them.” All the members of our board are church-going people and
claim to be Christians. They know what the right thing to do here is. Will they do it? I pray that they do.
Our children deserve honest leaders with integrity who believe that a promise is a promise and that your
word is your bond. GO COUGARS!