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Bryant expected to sign local school merger bills


Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus

Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus



Carl Smith



Two Golden Triangle school consolidation bills should receive Gov. Phil Bryant's signature by the end of the month, state Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, confirmed Tuesday. 


Action on HB 716, the Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger bill, is due by April 29, while Bryant is expected to take up SB 2637, the West Point-Clay consolidation measure, on or before April 25. 


Chism said Bryant is expected to sign both pieces of legislation. 


The enrolled bills were signed earlier this month by legislators. The Senate unanimously adopted SB 2637's conference report on April 2, while the House passed 110-2 it one day later. Both chambers ratified HB 716 April 3. The House moved the bill forward by a 106-4 margin, while the Senate passed it 43-9. 


Both bills would administratively combine school systems within Oktibbeha and Clay counties in 2015. 


Each shared similar language during the legislative process -- a call for the creation of local study committees to analyze potential merger issues and logistics - but conference committee members for Clay County's bill eventually settled on a direct consolidation measure for one of the state's smallest school systems.  


The Clay County bill would create the West Point Consolidated School District by merging the county school system with West Point city schools. A deal is already in place which sends county junior and high school students to the West Point School District.  


If signed into law, the Starkville-Oktibbeha bill calls for the creation of the seven-member Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure to locally study the impact of merging Oktibbeha County School District with Starkville School District. Conferees previously pushed back the committee's non-binding report to the Legislature, Mississippi Department of Education and the governor from Jan. 1, 2014 to March 1 of that same year. Those same lawmakers also increased local SSD representation on the board from two to three by decreasing county participation.  


Specific consolidation language as previously amended by the House was inserted back into HB 716 by conferees. The Starkville Consolidated School District would be created after merging Oktibbeha County School District with Starkville School District.  


Despite the legislature's action, Department of Justice approval is still needed for future Starkville-Oktibbeha consolidation, SSD School Board Attorney Dolton McAlpin said last week. 


Both city and county school districts remain under federal desegregation orders. McAlpin advised the board to contract for counsel with Holmes Adams, a desegregation lawyer who helped open the Jackson offices of Adams and Reese LLP, before the consolidation study commission begins its task. 


"Despite the fact that the Legislature believes it may have consolidated the school district, it won't happen until a federal judge says it's going to happen and the Department of Justice agrees. You can set up attendance zones ... and then the DOJ could say, 'No.' That's a potential nightmare," McAlpin told school board members April 9. "You really don't want to make a lot of plans and then find out the Justice Department doesn't agree, nor does a federal judge agree with any of it. A federal judge trumps the Legislature, and I'm not sure they understand that." 


SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said the district should hold a special-call meeting to begin discussions on how to fill its three seats of the consolidation study committee once the bill is signed into law. 


A merger report is due to the Legislature, governor and Mississippi Department of Education by March 1, 2014.  


Holloway, who has said he would like to serve on the commission, told school board members that stakeholders with proven backgrounds in finance and law would be strong candidates for the group.


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



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