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Merger committee has no appetite to send students out of county


Carl Smith



Members of the Oktibbeha County school merger committee members moved away from possibly asking neighboring school districts to absorb schoolchildren after numerous regional representatives said their systems had no interest in taking on more students. 


Out of seven school systems, only Louisville's representative told the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School Structure that his district had an interest in absorbing students. Representatives from Choctaw County, Clay County, West Point and Lowndes County all said they could not commit to the issue one way or another at present time, while Noxubee and Webster counties' school districts' spokespersons flat out said no to the board. 


School capacity and transportation issues could create even larger problems for neighboring systems, representatives said. 


After the cold reception to student absorption, merger committee members said it was evident Oktibbeha County should take care of its own, as its neighbors are dealing with their own problems. 


A Senate amendment to the Starkville-Oktibbeha County merger legislation, HB 716, charged the commission with exploring the viability of sending outlying county students to their closest counterparts in adjoining counties. The Starkville School District's territory represents a modified square containing the city and small areas around it; Oktibbeha County School District's four campuses are located in the corners of the county. 


If legislators and Mississippi Department of Education Officials agree to move one or more OCSD schools into a neighboring school district, issues with transportation and funding would then need to be resolved. 


"We're trying to make an issue that might not be an issue," board member Lee Brand. "I think the road forward means keeping Oktibbeha County in Oktibbeha County." 


"I could almost jump out of my seat here. I can talk very passionately about this," OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley said before standing and addressing the audience. 


"These are good students; they belong to Oktibbeha County and Starkville," she said. "It was good to hear what all the other superintendents had to say, but I think moving forward, this commission needs to look at serving the students in Oktibbeha County and Starkville as one consolidated district." 




Brewer slams legislature over merger 


Clay County School District Superintendent Mae Brewer took exception Thursday to how the state Legislature handled consolidation efforts in her county, venting frustration toward MDE officials who sit on the Starkville-Oktibbeha consolidation committee. 


Brewer, along with West Point School District Superintendent Burnell McDonald, both told their respective school districts are not ready to pledge support toward absorbing Oktibbeha students since their systems are also consolidating in 2015. 


A similar consolidation bill was passed for the West Point School District and Clay County School District this legislative term. The county school district, one of the smallest in the state, spends almost $350,000 on administrative costs for fewer than 160 students, Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, told the Associated Press in January. 


Currently, WPSD has a working agreement with the county school system to educate its high school students. 


"I think the way this was handled was absolutely unfair to the Clay County School District," Brewer said to MDE officials Thursday. "It ... was an afterthought that we were thrown in." 


Brewer said she and other CCSD officials met with Tollison in Jackson prior to the bill's passage. Brewer said that meeting gave her the understanding that consolidation efforts could be worked out on the local level without state interference. 


"I want what's best for the kids in my school district. I just don't feel like this has been fair," she said. "If we're consolidated the way they say... three of the (school) board members in West Point will be appointed by the board of aldermen from within the city limits, while the other two will come from outside of the city limits of West Point. That means there is an outstanding chance the students of Clay County will have no representation on that board, and that's not fair to my children; it's not fair to the students of Clay County School District to not be represented on that board. 


"I'm not in favor of the school district, and I don't have money problems. When the legislation started ... that's what they said the criteria was going to be. That's not what happened in Clay County schools," she added. "We wanted to work ours out ourselves. I went to see the man that wrote our bill. If he wanted to start on consolidation, he should have started with his county." 


The state Legislature's website lists Tollison as SB 2637's, the Clay County consolidation bill, principal author. 


MDE representatives reminded the public that the Miss. Legislature, not the state school board, initiates school consolidation efforts.


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



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