July 18, 2013 10:18:38 AM
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said lawmakers are expected to use legislative sessions in both 2014 and 2015 to address Oktibbeha County school consolidation issues.
Chism referred to the March 1, 2014 deadline for the local consolidation committee's report on merger issues as a driver meant to call the county to action. Legislators, he said, will address any issues lingering from next year's legislative session months before law calls for the Oktibbeha County School District to merge with the city system.
Members of the Commission on Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Structure Tuesday expressed concern over the size of their task in regard to the state-mandated deadline. Committee member Rex Buffington suggested the group meet more than once a month to give proper attention and discussion to the complex issues surrounding merging two school districts.
Buffington previously recommended setting an internal deadline for the board's report. Members floated the idea of an internal January deadline Tuesday so lawmakers could begin consuming the report in the early part of 2014's legislative session, but a date was not officially set.
Local representatives and high ranking officials with the Mississippi Department of Education have met with Starkville School District Superintendent and OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley three times since the committee was formed. If the group sets a January deadline and continues its current schedule, the consolidation study group would only convene five more times.
But how daunting is the time line?
"If we started a brand new school district today, it would not be ready by 2015," Holloway said.
"I know they want to comply with what we've asked of them, but I'm sure they could submit a preliminary plan, list a couple of issues still out there and hold another meeting or two. That would give us time during the (2014) session to start addressing consolidation. In other words, they've got to show us the plan, but then they've got another year," Chism said. "The 2015 session could be used for more tweaks. We definitely want a comprehensive plan, but we know issues are always waiting to pop up with something big like this."
If the committee's report misses the bill-introduction phase of next year's legislative session, Chism said friendly amendments to other education acts could be utilized and drive the process.
"If everyone is cooperative, we can find a way," he said. "As long as these suggestions are for the betterment of the school district and its students, we're for it."
The consolidation group's report will focus on four core areas: a review of both school districts' structure and recommendations on how they can be effectively merged; the viability of merging one or a combination of the county's four campuses with neighboring school systems; capital facility needs and financing recommendations; and the elimination of duplicative and wasteful administrative spending while maximizing educational quality.
"I really think the sooner we can decide on a basic framework, the better we are because then we can build upon it. That's when we can start making tangible accomplishments," Buffington said.
No matter what recommendations the committee makes, HB 716 still calls for the two districts to merge July 1, 2015. The committee cannot decide if SSD and OCSD should or should not merge.
"At the end of the day, we're going to be a consolidated school district. We do not need two districts in one," committee member and District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer said. "If we keep the focus on the children and not stay so honed in on the smallest of things, we - Oktibbeha County - will be successful."
Committee members could utilize previous documented discussions on consolidation as a guidepost for the current endeavor. Buffington chaired a local task force in the late '90s which discussed the idea of a unified school district and presented plans to both systems. SSD's school board approved the proposal then, he said, but it was rejected outright by county trustees.
Buffington is currently in the process of obtaining documents relating to the previous group's efforts.
"It was a well-thought out effort which came incredibly close to being a reality," he said. "The times and the situations have changed, but we could learn a lot from that past experience."
Committee members set a public hearing for 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Greensboro Center for the first public discussions on the four county schools' futures.
The topic is an important one because the number of schools in the county-wide school system would depend if any are absorbed by Oktibbeha's neighbors. Members mentioned Choctaw, Clay, Lowndes and Webster counties' school systems as possible homes for the four schools in passing Tuesday.
SSD's territory covers a modified square shape in the middle of the county, while OCSD's campuses are located in the county's four corners. If legislators and MDE agree to move one or multiple OCSD schools to a neighboring district, transportation and funding - average daily attendance and ad valorem monies - issues would then need resolving.
MDE officials announced Tuesday a new email address - Starkville-Oktibbeha@mde.k12.ms.us - to which residents can send questions or comments about the merger process. Officials will gather submissions and provide answers for a planned Frequently Asked Questions guide.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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