August 21, 2013 10:20:48 AM
Starkville's chapter of Parents for Public Schools and the Starkville Foundation for Public Education launched a 10-point pledge Tuesday to improve county-wide education and promote one of the area's top issues in hopes of re-sparking awareness before Thursday's first public hearing on consolidation is held.
The online pledge, which can be found at ppsstarkville.org, commits, among other things, to improve the area's quality of life and economy through "excellence in public education," "advocated vigorously for the future of every child in Oktibbeha County," involve all parents within the county as stakeholders and "establish a shared culture of pride, trust and respect in every school."
It calls upon all parents, educators, constituents, elected officials, legislators and Mississippi Department of Education representatives to confirm their commitment to the county and its future.
PPS Starkville unveiled the pledge on its website Tuesday morning, and by 10 p.m. Tuesday listed 103 committed individuals, public officials, businesses and organizations. Four members of the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure -- Lee Brand, Rex Buffington, Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway and District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer -- have signed the pledge, and the entire five-person SSD Board of Trustees inked their names to the agreement.
"This will be one of the greatest impact Oktibbeha County has ever known, and for the commission to be given an opportunity to be a part of such a change for this county, the communities and, more importantly, the students, should be an honor," wrote SSD Board of Trustees President Eddie Myles on the PPS Starkville website. "I pray and hope that the process you form will be one that future counties could model."
Starkville High School parent Mark Woomer added on the site that consolidation "is an excellent opportunity to improve the quality of life for all residents of Oktibbeha County. I pledge my support to providing the best public education experience for all scholars in our county. We have the privilege of demonstrating a positive consolidation experience for the rest of our state. I applaud the writing of this pledge."
The Greater Starkville Development Partnership also formally supported the pledge Tuesday. GSDP CEO Jennifer Gregory urged the Partnership Board and members of the Committee of 100 to join the commitment to education in Oktibbeha County.
"It's important for our business community to take the lead on promoting education because education is at the center of every effort of community and economic development," Gregory said. "The Partnership is committed to public education in Starkville and Oktibbeha County, and we appreciate the efforts of PPS and SFPE to rally the community in support of our children."
Thursday's 6 p.m. meeting at the Greensboro Center marks the first official public hearing scheduled by the consolidation committee. Parents are expected to address the seven-person board with numerous concerns, including specific input on whether one or a combination of the county's four schools should be joined with neighboring county school districts.
"We felt like the conversation that occurred last spring when the Legislature was in session went away during the summer. This is the first public meeting for people to get re-engaged," PPS Starkville President Michelle Jones said. "We're a strong advocate for public education, and that includes all the children of Oktibbeha County. We want the conversation to be productive and helpful to the commission as we move forward.
"If you live in Oktibbeha County, this should be important to you. Education is one of the most important issues we face," she added.
In their July meeting, consolidation committee members mentioned Choctaw, Clay, Lowndes and Webster counties in passing when discussing the future of Oktibbeha County School District's four schools. 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.
The Starkville-Oktibbeha County merger legislation, HB 716, created the consolidation committee and charged it with delivering a March 2014 report on how to successfully join the two school systems by July 2015. As the bill worked its way through the Senate this spring, state legislators tacked on an amendment allowing the committee to also look at the viability of joining outlying county schools with their closest counterparts in an adjoining county.
If legislators and MDE officials agree to move one or multiple OCSD schools into a neighboring school district, transportation and funding - average daily attendance and ad valorem monies - issues would then need to be resolved.
The two school systems within Oktibbeha County educate about 5,250 students combined. Fewer than 1,000 schoolchildren attend OCSD.
City school board members and SSD stakeholders vigorously discussed consolidation as HB 716 went through the legislative process this winter and spring. County leaders, including Trainer, also held public listening sessions to record parents' concerns over OCSD's future.
Buffington previously suggested that the consolidation group meet more frequently so it can get about the business of fully exploring all merger issues in a timely manner. July's meeting marked the group's third overall meeting, and the group has met only once per month since its formation. Two meetings per month, he said in July, could provide time for robust discussions.
Buffington also suggested in June that the consolidation committee push up its state-mandated deadline. In that meeting, he said the group should set an internal due date for its report so lawmakers could review it before the later stages of the 2014 legislative session.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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