Civic Center rental fee riles North Panola – Superintendent asks for clarity

Published 8:01 am Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Perceived unfairness in rental fees at Batesville Civic Center this week spurred some residents of North Panola School District to threaten a boycott of retail stores and business offices in the county’s largest city.

Sardis Alderman Michael Price has been among the most vocal of the contingent of North Panola residents and school district supporters, who are angry that NP High School was charged $2,500 for Civic Center graduation rental, while SP High School paid $1,000 for the same service.

The matter was brought before the Batesville Mayor and Board of Aldermen last week by North Panola Superintendent Chad Spence, who said he was seeking an answer to the price increase on behalf of his local board.

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Spence said the district submitted an application to reserve the facility months ago, and budgeted $1,000 for the rental, the same rate the district has paid for years. Two weeks before the May event, he told aldermen, an email from the Civic Center said the fee was $2,500.

Attorney Colmon Mitchell provided the board with copies of both the state statute, and resulting city rental policy, that covers how publicly owned property may be used. In essence, the law allows the city to accept a reduced fee from South Panola because the Civic Center lies within the district.

Spence said not only did the fee increase make an already-stretched graduation budget even tighter, but also sent a message that Batesville leaders aren’t receptive to the idea of a county-wide partnership in civic matters, such as public education.

Residents of the North Panola district are in the same county as Batesville residents, and the two public high schools are less than ten miles apart, yet South Panola pays considerably less for the rental, said Spence, who was the SPSD Assistant Superintendent before taking the top job in other districts.

“I have a hard time understanding that,” he said. “I need some clarity and understanding so I can calm down my people in the community.”

The Batesville board is often approached by various groups and organizations that wish to have a reduced rental fee, and routinely refer petitioners to the same policy.

Batesville Alderman Stan Harrison said he was sympathetic to the fact that Spence and NP leaders were “misled by semi-incompetent” management in years past and only charged $1,000, but the Civic Center belongs to the residents of Batesville and the policy was in place to protect their interest.

“South Panola district and North are two different things,” Harrison said. “That’s just the way it was set up forever. Things operate differently.” The policy is based on the law, Spence was told.

“Keep in mind that the building cost fifteen million dollars or more, it was paid for by Batesville, Mississippi, the people in this town,” he said. “The people in this community and our tourism money paid for that building and I don’t mean it the wrong way, but the people in Sardis and Como didn’t pay for this.”

It was Harrison’s assessment that upset Sardis Alderman Price, spurring he and others to use social media platforms to urge North Panola district residents to shop in Tate or Lafayette County stores instead of Batesville establishments.

“Stan and everybody else knows that the Civic Center was paid for by tax money that all of Panola County helped with,” Price said. “Do the Batesville aldermen really believe that they get funds from just Batesville people? They act like Sardis and Como don’t spend money in Batesville and that’s hard for me to believe.”

“The only time the Batesville elected officials seem to want to include Sardis and Como with the rest of Panola County is when the Lake Project comes up,” Price said. “When the Lake Project gets talked about in Washington, D.C., then suddenly they want to make Sardis a part of Panola County.”

Although the Batesville board made no concessions at the meeting, it is probable the city will honor the original agreement of $1,000 rental fee for NPHS this year. The policy will not be adjusted locally unless state law is changed, the board said.

Supervisor Earl Burdette, who has voters in both school districts and has received complaints, said Monday he didn’t believe that asking residents to spend their money outside the county was the right approach, but added that leaders should be able to find an equitable agreement.

“If that’s the law or the policy, then maybe the policy needs some review, but in the meantime we are too small of a county to be arguing about $1,500,” Burdette said. “I know it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing, but the shape we are in won’t get better without every one of us working together. That’s county and city elected officials from all over Panola County. We can figure out the $1,500.”