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Senators pass Starkville-Oktibbeha merger bill

 

Carl Smith

 

The Mississippi Senate passed an amended version of the Oktibbeha-Starkville school consolidation bill which now explicitly allows a potential study commission to look into the possibility of merging county schools with other area districts. 

 

The amendment, proposed by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was the only change made by legislators. 

 

The bill now moves back to the House where representatives could reject the Senate version's outright or form a conference committee to iron out the differences. 

 

As written, HB 716's amendments still point to a school merger in 2015. 

 

The legislation calls for the creation of a seven-person commission comprised of Oktibbeha County constituents to review the county and city school districts and recommend how they can be effectively consolidated. 

 

The group, known as the Commission on Starkville-Oktibbeha County School District Structure, would be comprised of State Superintendent of Education Lynn House or a Mississippi Department of Education designee; two Starkville School District representatives appointed by its school board; two residents of the Oktibbeha County School District; OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley; and a Mississippi State University representative appointed by President Mark Keenum. 

 

Before the amendment was presented and a roll call vote was taken, Bryan chastised legislators who developed the merger bill without first asking for local input and referred to "clandestine meetings" surrounding the entire process. 

 

"The idea of one district per county ... is not a good idea. It's very appealing because it sounds so simple," Bryan said. "One problem with this amendment is it assumes there should be one school district for Oktibbeha County. I'm not at all sure this is the best solution, nor do I think this is what the people that reside there want." 

 

Bryan then said constituents he spoke with in Sturgis say they would support its county school merging with the Choctaw County School District. Other Oktibbeha County residents should have a choice for consolidation, he said, noting the OCSD campuses are located closer to other counties' districts than Starkville. 

 

"There is no reason on earth ... the people who live there shouldn't (have a voice in the process). It's interesting to me that the people who live in this district had no say so about this. Heaven forbid (Sturgis residents whose children attend OCSD) have any say so about it," Bryan said. "It seems to me the study commission has only one thing to do and that's to get about the business of merging Starkville and Oktibbeha. I cannot fathom why we would not allow folks around Ackerman and Sturgis to combine their areas if they wanted to." 

 

Bryan also took exception to the fact the bill still points toward merging OCSD and SSD no matter how the study commission reports back to legislators. 

 

Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, urged legislators to truly give the consolidation process to local residents. Jackson represents a portion of Oktibbeha County. 

 

"Right now back home, there are groups working like crazy on this. I would love for the groups back home - Parents for Public Schools Starkville, the Starkville Foundation for Education and others - to really have ownership of this plan. As you know, if you have ownership of a plan, you're not going to feel like something is forced down your throat," he said on the Senate floor. "We don't know what all the needs are. Let them do their work; let them come up with a consolidation plan. They'll do a much better job than we could ever do. 

 

"The same thing could happen to you," Jackson warned to senators, referring to forced consolidation attempts by the legislature. 

 

When asked by a fellow senator if he supported the Senate Education Committee's strike-all amendments more than the original bill, Jackson said, "I'd rather have one leg amputated than two." 

 

"We need to let the people handle it and come back by next session ... with an understanding that we are long suffering, but we have a limit. We do know we need to strike while the iron is hot," he said. 

 

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison said during debate state law allows school children to transfer out of districts which have been taken over twice by the state. He said he believed the committee's amendment would allow the study commission to analyze if locals schools would benefit merging with out-of-county systems but supported the floor's amendment to explicitly state that provision.

 

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch

 

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