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School lands lease policy changed

Those 40 acres have been in her family for generations. She grewup there. Her brother and sister were born there. It’s the family’shallowed ground.

But Bogue Chitto’s Jean Delois Jones doesn’t own the land herfamily has called home for 78 years – it’s 16th Section land, ownedby the state of Mississippi and priced by the Lincoln County SchoolBoard. And when the 80-year-old failed to make the minimum bid whenthe land came up for its decennial bidding last month, the schoolboard reclaimed the family acreage near Mt. Olive Church ofChrist.

Now, the old farmstead will be converted to a forestry plot.

“I didn’t want to lose this, but since I did not bid $25 per acre,they have took it,” Jones said. “For 40 acres, that would have been$1,000 per year, and I cannot pay $1,000 per year. In 10 years,that’s $10,000. It ain’t worth it.”

Jones was the only bidder to name a price for the land, but theprice she named – $12.50 per acre – didn’t meet the county schoolboard’s price of $25 per acre. She’s quite upset with the board andis making her displeasure known.

But the buck doesn’t stop in Lincoln County. It stops inJackson.

The higher prices and more stringent rules governing 16th Sectionland were put into place last year by the Mississippi Secretary ofState’s Office with the aim of maximizing revenue for schooldistricts.

For the most part, that means converting as many tracts as possibleinto timber stands to be harvested every few years, charging morefor agriculture leases and eventually eliminating long-runningresidential and commercial leases. School boards across the stateare following those regulations closely.

And while the new procedures are definitely hurtful to longtimeleaseholders like Jones, taking away large tracts of land that havebeen controlled on the cheap for generations is exactly what theyare designed to do, according to school officials.

“When you look at the whole picture, we couldn’t afford to losemoney,” said Stan Long, the county district’s 16th Section manager.”Our revenue had to be maintained or increased, and that’s myjob.”

Following the secretary of state’s new management rules, the countyschool board has set annual prices of $100 per acre forrecreational and commercial leases, $25 per acre on agricultureleases and $5.50 per acre for hunting leases. The pay-per-acreformula for residential and farm residential leases has beendropped in favor of a value system, where lessees must have theland appraised and pay 5 percent of the appraised value.

Still, the school board has made adjustments to help itsleaseholders wherever possible. Many farm residential leaseholderswere allowed to convert their land to cheaper agricultureleases.

“We raised it to $25 over the $12.50 minimum we had, and that’s tokeep us from losing revenue,” Long said. “We think it’s a prettygood deal for 10 years to lock it in for $25 per acre. If you wereto go buy some land, you’d pay about $3,000 per acre. It takes alot of 25s to get to 3,000.”

District Superintendent Terry Brister pointed out 16th Sectionreform was a major campaign promise of Secretary of State DelbertHosemann when he ran for the post in 2007. He said the lands have ahistory of mismanagement and have been used in the past as a methodof granting favors – like extending 99-year leases to friends forprices as low as 6 cents per acre.

“Sixteenth Section land has been abused over the years inMississippi,” Brister said. “It went on for years. Now, it’s muchmore scrutinized, more closely monitored. It may not be popular,but it’s in the best interests of schools and children.”