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franklin county times

Barrett approved under fire

By By Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star
June 29, 2001
Criticism of Bobby Jack "BJ" Barrett's appointment to the Meridian Public School Board seems to be more about his acceptance of the position rather than questions about his qualifications.
Barrett, who lives in the separate school district, was confirmed Thursday to fill the remainder of the term of Sam Neal, who has moved. City officials said Neal's appointment ends in April 2003.
Separate school district residents live outside the city limits, but within the city school district. They have pointed out they pay city school taxes without having a legitimate voice in city government because they cannot vote for city officials.
Barrett's appointment was made possible by a state law passed in March. It allows separate school district residents to choose whether their children will attend city or county schools, if the Meridian City Council did not give them representation on the city school board by July 1.
This issue involves 227 students. If they were to have moved to the county school district, it would have resulted in a large loss of state revenue for the Meridian schools.
Ken Storms, the city's chief administrative officer, announced the appointment Wednesday at a specially called meeting of the city council. Council members interviewed Barrett during another special meeting on Thursday, and confirmed his nomination on a 4-1 vote.
Even before Barrett was confirmed, he drew the ire of Ward 5 Councilman Bobby Smith. Smith said Barrett on Wednesday told him he did not want the school board appointment and that he wanted his children to go to Clarkdale Attendance Center. Smith asked Barrett to tell those in attendance Thursday what they had discussed the previous day.
Barrett told Smith he had misunderstood. Barrett said he was pleased to have his children in the Meridian Public School District.
Barrett, who was first informed about his possible nomination Wednesday, told council members before his appointment that although he was being brought in to the board quickly, he would work to make it a better group.
An angry crowd of about 30 people from the separate school district showed up to watch the proceedings, but were not permitted to talk during the meeting. After Barrett's appointment, several residents lashed out at him for taking the position and taking away their opportunity to choose a county school instead.
During the meeting, Barrett indicated he had already felt some of the pressure associated with his decision.
For their part, separate district residents indicated the issue was not over. At a Wednesday afternoon meeting, several residents said the law was never intended to encourage the city to give representation to separate district residents, rather it was a "choice" bill letting them decide between city and county schools.
On Wednesday night, the city school board also voted to ask U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to review the bill because it may "coerce" the city into giving representation to the separate district and it could be a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
State Rep. Greg Snowden, a key supporter of the bill authored by Rep. Eric Robinson of Quitman, said it would be unlikely that the attorney general would see the bill the same way as school officials, but added it was possible.
Snowden said the law was used by the city for the exact purpose it was intended, offering representation to a group that was previously without representation.
Ben Alexander is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3226, or e-mail him at balexander@themeridianstar.com.