Push renewed to make use of former school buildings

James Carskadon
Staff Writer

Approximately one year after the last students left East and West Oktibbeha County High School, the two campuses remain unused by the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District.
However, community members and elected officials on both sides of Oktibbeha County are hoping to see that change soon. The Education Association of Eastern Oktibbeha County Schools organized a meeting Thursday night to discuss possible ideas for the former school facilities. Maben Mayor Larry Pruitt, Oktibbeha County District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer and District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard attended that meeting.
Both Trainer and Howard expressed interest in having the county take over the schools and then leasing them out to interested tenants that would provide a service in the nearby communities.
“Our Board of Supervisors will probably have to facilitate making this thing move,” Trainer said. “What really gives us encouragement is when we talk about these things, we don’t get negative feedback. We get people that are interested in trying to make it happen.”
The two empty schools are located on opposite corners of Oktibbeha County. The former West Oktibbeha County High School is in downtown Maben, which gives Pruitt incentive to prevent the school from falling into disrepair. WOCHS is in slightly better position to gain a tenant. It is not on 16th Section Land, which means the school board could vote to sell the property to the county. Also, its facilities are still in relatively good shape, according to Howard.
The East Oktibbeha County High School building is on Moor High Road in the southeast part of Oktibbeha County. It is technically on 15th Section land, but legally falls under the same regulations as 16th Section land, which means it cannot be sold by the school district.
SOCSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said Friday he would “absolutely” consider selling the West Oktibbeha property and would like to see tenants in both schools.
“Ideally, we don’t want them to be ours because we’re not in a position to maintain them or keep them up,” Holloway said of the buildings. “Schools that are empty typically deteriorate rather quickly. We would prefer that not to happen. If there’s any entity that would lease the schools, that would be a good thing.”
Last year, East Mississippi Community College expressed interest in using the West Oktibbeha campus, but a formal proposal never made it to the school board after discussions came to a stop. Holloway said Friday that interest from EMCC “doesn’t seem to exist anymore.”
Howard said Thursday he would still like to pursue an agreement with EMCC. He also noted that West Oktibbeha is big enough that it could house multiple organizations that need classroom space. Both schools also contain recreational space that includes a basketball gym and a football field.
“We put in the work, we put in the effort and tried lots of different avenues and it just didn’t pan out,” Howard said. “Maybe if we go back now and try it again, we might get a different answer, especially now that the building is just sitting there.”
Pruitt said he hopes to see a partnership similar to what EMCC has in West Point, where the city of West Point, Clay County and EMCC all share responsibility for an old school building.
EAEOCS President Jacqueline Ellis came to the SOCSD Board of Trustees in September with a proposal to create a multipurpose, community-based program at the East Oktibbeha campus. Ellis was informed of some logistical issues by the school board at that time, although the board was receptive to the idea. On Thursday, Ellis said she was excited to see support from the supervisors for putting something in the former schools.
“When we approached the school board they were very helpful, very supportive and understanding,” Ellis said. “They gave us all the tools and all the information required of us as an organization. There are certain laws that apply to a non-profit that would be different from (the county), but at the same time we’re working for the same cause – to have better facilities in our community for educational purposes or whatever purpose.”
Oktibbeha County fire and law enforcement officials have expressed interest in using East Oktibbeha for training purposes, according to Ellis. Mike Lightsey noted that it opening up the school would create a bigger community meeting space on the Eastern side of the county. Most community meetings, such as those held by EAEOCS, take place at the District 5 Volunteer Fire Department station on Oktoc Road. However, space is limited in that facility.
“We’re growing in this county and this city.” Lightsey said. “If we think 10 or 12 years down the road, people will be moving out to both sides and into these communities. Developing good programs and facilities along the way will have a dual effect. It will help all people there if you have things for them and do good things in the community, plus you don’t let the facilities deteriorate to where you don’t have to start all over again.”
The meeting ended with Howard recommending residents continue to push for programs in the old schools by letting school district officials know how it can benefit the community and by getting on the school board’s meeting agenda.