Rural high-speed Internet on legislative agenda
County consultant Gary Anderson reported to supervisors on activity in Jackson about possible legislation allowing rural electric power associations to provide broadband (Internet) service to its customers.
He said there was a recent meeting and the topic found lots of support, even though there is opposition in the House, but favorable interest in the Senate.
“Northcentral is ready for it,” he said.
Supervisor George Zinn III asked Anderson how AT&T, now providing high-speed Internet in some rural areas, lines up with the discussions about electric power associations also getting onboard.
County administrator Larry Hall answered, saying AT&T’s product to expand broadband via transmission from and to towers does not align itself with electric power associations.
“It’s a market thing,” Hall said, adding that the AT&T service depends on a positive customer enrollment.
“There are five or six rural electric coops ready to take it,” Anderson said, including Northcentral and Northeast.
He said House Speaker Phillip Gunn is supporting AT&T’s expansion while the lieutenant governor is willing to support rural cooperatives.
Supervisor Charles Terry asked whether HSUD is interested. Anderson said general manager Bill Stone has attended a meeting in Tupelo where the topic was discussed.
In other discussions, Anderson said he thinks there is legislative interest in a bond bill and the county should have its projects ready to go.
A marketing strategy to promote new home construction was also discussed with some private businesses showing interest in helping the county with its marketing strategy.
“Is your school district study progressing?” Zinn asked, meaning have the school districts been asked to become involved in the housing discussions at a deeper level.
“We’re at ground zero,” said Anderson, adding that a Request for Proposals is needed to define the scope of such efforts to bring the school districts in, particularly the county school district.
“Why are the schools not doing this?” asked District 3 supervisor Keith Taylor.
“We communicated with the superintendents in January 2018; we didn’t go to the school boards,” Anderson said.
“I think the school board needs to take the lead on it,” Taylor said.
District 1 Supervisor Charles Terry weighed in: “With us as county administrators, we have a scope of responsibility to do all the research. We can identify issues, but cannot tell the school district what to do.”
(Beneath this discussion is the issue of how school performance levels affect attracting big industry and new residents to the county.)
Taylor wants to get the two district school boards together with the board of supervisors to work on the project.
Anderson suggested the RFP be prepared then shared with the two school boards and superintendents.
“The superintendents have to do what the school boards say, so I think the school boards should be involved,” said District 5 Superintendent Ronnie Joe Bennett.
“One superintendent is elected and one is appointed,” Terry said.
If the school districts provide research it would benefit the county overall, he said.
“The school districts have been in existence forever,” Zinn said. “There have to have been studies in the past, but we don’t have the results.”
Taylor said all elected officials should be in agreement on the school district study.
“I can’t see this board trying to force that board to do anything,” Bennett said. “We are not elected to run the schools. We have nothing to do with the schools. We need to get five school board members to agree to get this done. I’m not for going over the school board (authority) to get this done.”
Terry said his constituents frequently ask him when he is running for office, “‘What are you doing for education?’ We are not forcing them to do anything. We are identifying (the needs) and putting it in their (the schools’) hands,” he said.
Dixon said the schools are already graded by the state.
“If they don’t move up, the state will take them over,” he said. “They (the educational experts) have doctorates and they know what to do.”
“We should get together, five and five, and see what can this board do to make things work together,” Bennett said.
Terry asked what the superintendents’ response was to the housing committee.
“One was receptive and another asked questions,” Anderson said. “Our ACT scores dipped. There is a critical teacher shortage.”
“We have to work with the state (board of education) to get these teachers,” Dixon said.
Bennett wondered whether the municipal boards would also be interested.
“We are all passionate about it,” said Taylor. “I wouldn’t want to alienate anyone.”
Zinn said he thinks there is not enough transparency about the school districts. He wondered if private businesses, such as the large industries, would want to put money into the schools.
“Industries are #1 with the schools,” Taylor said. “They could be a partner. Let’s let the experts talk; they are a lot smarter on schools than we are.”
Terry suggested a motion to authorize Anderson to attempt to set up a meeting with the school boards to discuss what each can do to help the other. A motion was made and passed.
“You can come up with excuses or you can come up with reasons,” Terry said. “The reasons will be found in a study.”