School merger committee member Orlando Trainer, center, addresses concerned county constituents Thursday at East Oktibbeha County High School. Also pictured are Education Association of East Oktibbeha County Schools President Jacqueline Ellis and David Shaw, Mississippi State University vice president for research and economic development. Photo by: Carl Smith/Dispatch Staff
December 23, 2013 9:11:07 AM
STARKVILLE -- A list of concerns aired Thursday by county school constituents, including adding "Oktibbeha County" to the name of the upcoming consolidated school system and addressing how to provide equal opportunities to all students, are expected to be addressed today by the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure.
The merger committee met at 9 a.m. today at the county education building. Coverage of the event was unavailable at press time.
About 50 county school constituents met Thursday at East Oktibbeha County High School and aired a number of grievances and concerns over the school consolidation process. Many said they felt the county school system has been portrayed in a negative light since consolidation talks began earlier this year.
Gov. Phil Bryant previously placed OCSD under conservatorship in September 2012 due to a history of poor student performance and numerous accreditation issues.
One year later, OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley and her staff resurrected the district's academic standing by bringing the system's two high schools out of failing ranks and improving its overall score to a "C," the same score given to Starkville School District.
On Thursday, Pulley told county constituents that the district has received verbal indications from the Mississippi Department of Education that it has satisfied accreditation standards cited by the governor during last year's takeover. She also promised to take recommendations from the public to the full consolidation committee today.
HB 716, the school merger bill, tasked the consolidation committee to create a report of recommendations for successfully joining the two Oktibbeha school systems and deliver it to the Legislature and governor by March 1. Although commissioners previously hoped to produce such a report before Jan. 7, the start of the 2014 Miss. Legislative session, a final product is not expected today.
For months, commissioners have debated numerous facets of consolidation, but few recommendations have been ironed out. Oktibbeha County school children are expected to remain within the county -- most neighboring school systems previously told commissioners they have no appetite to take in more students -- but many details, including school logistics and funding mechanisms for improvements and construction, remain in limbo.
School boundaries, another hot topic among county constituents Thursday, are expected to remain preserved for the school system, but commissioners have gone back and forth on a district configuration. Previously, the group reached a consensus to preserve the two county elementary schools as is and bus OCSD students to Starkville High School. Now, the group is looking at reconfiguring a county high school to serve elementary students, thereby negating costs associated with improvements needed to bring both its elementary campuses to par.
About $5 million is needed to renovate the county's two elementary schools.
The commission could ask state representatives to add legislative language to HB 716 that would allow for a reverse bond referendum. While SSD is near its bonding capacity since it previously began addressing physical needs, commissioners have expressed concern over how OCSD would fund its needed upgrades since the county electorate shies away from passing school bonds.
If codified, the county system could pursue up to $10 million worth of bonds that would be serviced across 30 years. OCSD could also utilize a 3-mill note spread across 20 years -- a move already available to the county -- as a smaller source of funding.
New construction was forecasted to handle an influx of middle school students, but Mississippi State University is actively seeking funding for an on-campus school that, school officials said, could help label the system as a demonstration district.
The university secured $1 million toward a partnership school when a Texas-based couple donated $12.3 to MSU's Infinite Impact fundraising campaign earlier this month. The university is expected to continue seeking construction funds.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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