February 23, 2013 9:42:23 PM
STARKVILLE -- Three Starkville public school groups co-signed a letter last week opposing a state House bill calling for the consolidation of Starkville School District and Oktibbeha County School District.
This letter represents the first public stance against HB 716, a measure that would create the Starkville Countywide Municipal Separate School District in 2015. The bill passed the House with an overwhelming majority last week and was sent Wednesday to the Senate Education Committee.
Signed by the SSD PTO Executive Council, Parents for Public Schools Starkville Executive Board and the Starkville Foundation for Public Education Executive Board, the letter calls for the Senate to delay action on the bill until local stakeholders have the opportunity to develop a community-based approach to a comprehensive education plan.
Previous county- and city-led meetings featured local constituents saying they felt left out of the legislative process associated with HB 716.
"With all due respect to the Mississippi Legislature, we are confident that dialogue among citizens who are the most direct stakeholders is the only path that will produce innovative ideas and collaborative solutions to achieve the results we all desire for children in our community," the letter states. "Many parents, independently and through our organizations and others, have worked alongside teachers and administrators to strengthen our schools. We want to continue to build on this momentum in the years ahead, for the good of our children and for the benefit of all citizens of our community and state."
Members of the three organizations understand the complexity and difficulty surrounding local educational challenges, the letter states, but believe combining the two school districts would create more problems than solutions.
"House Bill 716 is not the answer," the letter concludes before asking readers to contact state senators about preventing the measure's passage.
State Reps. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, say HB 716 offers a solution to a continued problem: the under-performance of the county school district. Both representatives say equal educational opportunities will be afforded to all Oktibbeha County school children by merging an under-performing system with a successful district.
Chism and Ellis voted for the Oktibbeha County school consolidation bill.
The county school system was taken over by the state last year after it was found in violation of 29 accreditation standards. OCSD received an overall "D" designation and "Academic watch" classification by the Mississippi Department of Education. Both county high schools received failing marks from MDE, while its elementary schools were classified as successful and high performing.
SSD received a successful designation from MDE.
Ellis previously said this school merger bill and another which would join Clay County schools with the West Point School District are the first of many which legislators will deal with in the future. State reps forced mergers in Bolivar and Sunflower counties last year.
The Clay County-West Point measure - SB 2637 - passed the Senate Feb. 15 and was referred to the House Education Committee Thursday.
CCSD spends almost $350,000 on administrative costs for about 150 students, Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, told the Associated Press in January. Tollison was unavailable for comment. A working agreement already sends county high school students to West Point.
Ellis said working agreements between the two state chambers should lend support to the consolidation measures.
The details - rather, the lack of details - is one reason HB 716 is meeting resistance in Oktibbeha County. As filed by Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, the bill called for annual $200,000 to assist with consolidation; however, the amended version House lawmakers passed cut that earmark.
Unanswered questions surrounding consolidation funding, debt and infrastructure led Starkville Foundation for Public Education President Doug Bedsaul to call for HB 716's defeat in the Senate, he said.
"It's not prudent at all to move forward with these questions remaining about finances. The last I heard the (Mississippi Department of Education) would determine how much funding is needed for consolidation. Maybe they're qualified, but it's not specifically laid out in the bill," he said. "If (legislators) take time from now to next session, they could come up with a hard number. There's just no time (before the end of this legislative session) to do that now."
Bedsaul also took issue with how legislators left city and county residents out of the equation when developing the bill. He, like many other SSD supporters, say they are not opposed to consolidation as long as it's done correctly and led by local input.
"I think that the way any law should be made is by really addressing the situation for the people that it ends up affecting. With any law, you have to start at the community level, and that simply did not happen here," he said. "We need a joint committee made up of members from both schools to define the facts if we are to move forward."
Other SSD stakeholders echoed Bedsaul's grievance with the lack of local leadership associated with the bill's filing. The Mississippi Legislature lists only Barker as HB 716's principle author. No co-authors are listed.
"As a community member, I was disconcerted by how this was brought about. Nothing against the representatives who filed the bill, but I have questions why it was filed by someone who does not live here. In this situation, community stakeholders need to be involved," Nelle Cohen, Starkville Foundation for Education vice president and PPS-Starkville secretary, said. "This is a community issue, not just a city or county issue. I'm a big believer in involving stakeholders in open, transparent discussion. If you do that, you'll find people who will get on board with the path that is most beneficial to all children in the county and city."
In referencing the bill's vagueness, Cohen said she is neither for nor against consolidation because she is unsure how it works.
Sumner Davis, a former Starkville alderman, said the bill's language is "an almost copy-and-paste job" in comparison to previous Miss. Delta consolidation measures. Davis' wife, Jennifer, serves in a leadership role with the Henderson-Ward Stewart PTO.
"(The bill's language) should tell you everything. It shows no concern for the local community," he said. "I have several concerns about the rate in which this bill is moving, because that shows little concern for the situation here. In the course of two weeks, they tried to hammer out complex issues with the committee substitute. It seems like a very unwise idea to push this bill with the questions that remain unanswered.
"Can it be done by January 2014? I don't know because those are complex issues," Davis added. "If you bring in the local stakeholders, let them examine everything and take time to figure out this issue correctly, then you're doing what's needed and right for our community."
Many stakeholders who gathered Thursday for a SSD strategic plan echoed the concerns addressed by PPS Starkville, the Starkville Foundation and SSD PTO.
Like many times since HB 716 was filed, Holloway addressed concerns surrounding the bill prior to the start of Thursday's work session. SSD administrators and school board members have not taken an official stance on the potential school merger.
"The issues for us are timeliness and how fast it's going (through the Legislature) with such critical issues that impact our community, our businesses, our total being and lives," Holloway said Thursday. "We don't think moving forward quickly with such implications is a wise thing. A lot of people are saying we're being negative. We're not."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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