March 26, 2013 9:53:05 AM
Three Mississippi House Education Committee members - Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and John L. Moore, R-Brandon - will serve on a conference committee charged with reaching a consensus on a potential Starkville-Oktibbeha school consolidation bill.
As of Monday night, it was not known if the Senate had named its three-person delegation to the committee. Chism and the State Legislature's website confirmed the committee's House roster, but no entries were listed online for the Senate's delegation.
State Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, said Monday he did not know if the Senate conferees had been named. Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said nominations were expected Monday from Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.
Tollison did not return phone calls or voice mails Monday.
"We now have to wait on the Senate. I know that Barker is already touching base with senators and trying to work on compromise language," Chism said.
Chism previously predicted he, Barker and House Education Chairman Moore would serve as the House's three-person delegation. Jackson said Tollison is expected to serve on their chamber's side alongside two other Senate Education Committee members.
Chism's appointment provides local representation to the committee. He previously said he is in favor of Oktibbeha County school consolidation. Jackson voted against the measure as it passed from the Senate floor.
Jackson, who represents a portion of Oktibbeha County, said he would serve on the committee if asked by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or Tollison. Unlike Chism, Jackson is not a member of the Senate Education Committee.
A conference is needed since both chambers passed different versions of the consolidation bill and to remove reverse-repeal language placed by the Senate Education Committee's strike-all amendment.
A modified version of HB 716, originally authored by Barker, overwhelmingly passed the House in February. As written, the bill directly called for merging Oktibbeha County School District with Starkville School District.
The Senate Education Committee struck a majority of HB 716 on March 12 and replaced it with language calling for the creation of a local study committee charged with exploring all aspects of the school merger. That group would deliver a report to the State Legislature, Mississippi Department of Education and Gov. Phil Bryant by January 2014.
The full Senate then slightly altered and passed the bill two days later. That amendment explicitly allows the study committee to look into possibly merging outlying county schools with school districts of other surrounding counties.
Both bills still point to consolidation in 2015.
For the consolidation measure to continue forward, two of the three legislators from both delegations must OK a compromise, Chism said. The bill would be sent to Bryant's desk for signing if both chambers approve the final consensus.
"I do think this will be one of the faster compromises," Chism said Monday. "We'll probably get some of these smaller bills out of the way so we can take up other education bills."
Since the bill's initial filing, constituents of both school systems criticized the legislation, discussed what's needed in the future to help solve OCSD's educational woes and protested a lack of representation surrounding the measure's development.
Executive boards for SSD PTO, Parents for Public Schools Starkville and Starkville Foundation for Public Education co-signed a letter last month calling for the defeat of HB 716. Former city school board leader Clyde Williams also came out March 11 in opposition to the merger bill.
Consolidation does, however, have supporters in the county. Three county leaders - District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer, District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams - said they support the proposed school merger as long as it's done correctly by legislators and department of education officials.
SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway told public stakeholders it is better to negotiate a consolidation agreement now rather than have a future measure without local input, according to unofficial minutes from the Thursday planning session released by the school district.
"We feel it is better to negotiate the bill now rather than have it die, because next year the legislature may pass a bill without our input," the meeting's unofficial minutes state.
SSD officials are asking legislators to give the proposed seven-member study group more time to research the issue and to add more Starkville representation to the committee, the minutes state.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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