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January 10, 2014 10:28:50 AM
The culmination of almost 15 meetings of the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure could come 9 a.m. Tuesday as committee members are expected to discuss the final draft of their long-awaited school merger report.
The Starkville School District boardroom, located at the Greensboro Center, will serve as a physical location for members of the public who wish to listen to the discussion, which will happen via teleconference.
Consolidation committee members say they are optimistic about the potential to approve a finalized merger report for state lawmakers during the teleconference. However, they tempered their excitement by saying the working draft is just that, a working draft, and can be augmented with board consensus.
Once finalized, Mississippi Department of Education officials will disburse the report to the Miss. House, Senate and Gov. Phil Bryant.
In December, The Dispatch obtained a working version of the committee's report, a document which outlines a plan to secure local monies for upgrades and renovations while seeking up to $20 million in state funding for the construction of a grades 6-7 campus on Mississippi State University property and the creation of a pre-kindergarten program as a demonstration project. The commission is also expected to recommend a $1 million annual funding stream to operate the pre-kindergarten program.
The Dispatch obtained a revised version of the draft Wednesday, one which contains similar requests, albeit with minor edits to the language.
In all, the working recommendations of the first request are expected to hold and be approved in the final version, including: allowing the school board term expiring in 2016 to remain in place until January 2017; amending state law to allow the entire consolidated school district to receive a three-year waiver from state accountability and assessments; allowing Oktibbeha County School District to contribute funds toward SSD improvements, including Starkville High School cafeteria expansions and Overstreet School renovations; permitting OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley to seek a reverse bond referendum for up to $10 million in funding for renovations; allowing Pulley to issue up to a 15-mill, three-year note that will secure $1.5 million specifically for county elementary school upgrades; increasing the debt limit cap to 20 percent of countywide assessed valuation with the inclusion of the reverse referendum option when pursuing general obligation bonds; and funding legal fees for litigation efforts regarding the two school system's desegregation orders.
The draft also contains language laying out a plan to construct a grades 8-9 campus, an idea previously floated by the commission. That plan is not expected to go forward if funding can be secured for the MSU partnership school. The 8-9 option would require about $14 million for construction, while the 6-7 school's total, $17 million, is divided between the $10 million state request and a commitment from MSU to raise $7 million through private gifts and grants.
The cost of the university's partnership campus is still an estimated figure. David Shaw, MSU vice president for research and economic development, previously told The Dispatch a taskforce is working to finalize the project's cost.
Shaw is also a member of the seven-person Starkville-Oktibbeha County merger committee.
The university previously secured $1 million toward a partnership school when a Texas-based couple donated $12.3 million to MSU's Infinite Impact fundraising campaign in December.
The working location for the grades 6-7 school, Shaw said last month, shifted from the school's intramural fields to where Aiken Village now stands. A location has not yet been identified by officials for the pre-kindergarten investment.
"This is a pretty significant report because the work we're doing is unusual. This is the first time a school system with a conservator is joining one without," said SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway. "After all the work we've done, how we've set up the process for input with public meetings and the tweaks, I'm hopeful (the current draft) will be finalized soon."
"At this point, we have a pretty well thought out, well hashed out and probably well documented request that will be a good starting point for our legislators," said merger commission member Orlando Trainer.
Trainer also serves as the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors president.
"We need to be more unified than ever so our requests gain more traction and accomplish what we're trying to do," he said. "I'm satisfied with the document, and I look to see great things come from our recommendations. It's time to join together."
MSU's proposed partnership with the consolidated school district is a lofty one. Besides constructing a grades 6-7 campus and expanding current SSD and OCSD partnerships, the university proposes expanding its pre-kindergarten and infant and toddler programs, increasing outreach opportunities to families throughout the state and founding the MSU Research and Outreach Center on Rural Education.
The center will "engage research on teacher education in rural areas" by focusing on unique issues, teacher recruitment and technological utilization. Specifically, the program will focus on effective instruction utilizing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for low-income, rural and minority students. Only four such centers exist nationally, according to the draft.
Local MSU outreach efforts will support other Oktibbeha County pre-kindergarten programs by helping them with accreditation and Early Learning Standards implementation efforts. Other efforts will also pair family studies students in MSU's human sciences with local residents to help with parenting skills, physical fitness, health and nutrition.
Stakeholders lobbying lawmakers
Although the commission's final report is still not yet finalized, public education stakeholders, including Holloway, merger commission member Rex Buffington and Parents for Public Schools Starkville representatives, traveled to Jackson this week and met with lawmakers, beginning a boots-on-the-ground, public relations blitz aimed at highlighting the county's needs to pull off a successful consolidation.
The campaign began in earnest before the merger report was finalized because of the workload lawmakers will face this legislative term, stakeholders said. Revisions to state code established by HB 716, the Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger bill, are needed to implement some of the requests outlined by the merger commission's draft. Also, appropriation bills will be needed to implement funding requests if agreed upon by legislators.
Future meetings with Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, and Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, are expected to continue through the term.
"We were very well received in Jackson and talked with our lawmakers about the language and potential changes needed to be made to 716. We got the feeling it won't be a big issue," Holloway said. "We have not yet met with Toby Barker. He will be key in legislation moving forward."
Ellis, Chism, Turner and Jackson all represent portions of Oktibbeha County, while Barker filed HB 716 last year, and Tollison chairs the Senate Education Committee. Chism also sits on the House Education Committee.
As signed into law, HB 716 calls for the creation of a unified Starkville-Oktibbeha school district in 2015. It also created the merger study group and tasked its members with presenting a list of consolidation recommendations to the state by March 1.
Jackson was instrumental last year in lobbying for the creation of the merger study group.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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