February 1, 2014 11:36:02 PM
Two bills moving through the Mississippi Legislature would place Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway in control of the Oktibbeha County School District on July 1 and provide him short- and long-term local financing options to improve the two systems' campuses for state-mandated consolidation in 2015.
If passed as written, the two pieces of legislation -- HB 833 and SB 2818 -- answer a number of requests submitted by the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure after months of intensive debate and discussion, including the allowance of a reverse referendum for school improvements, an increase of the debt limit cap on countywide assessed valuation, the ability for OCSD to contribute monies toward SSD improvements and future legal representation by the state's attorney general as the unified district seeks Department of Justice-approval for consolidation.
The House Education Committee OK'd HB 833, filed by Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, Friday and referred it to Ways and Means, according to Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus. Chism serves on the House Education Committee.
The other bill, filed by Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, remains in its original subcommittee according to the Legislature's website.
It is uncertain when lawmakers will take up both bills next.
Both bills contain similar language enacted by HB 716, the original Starkville-Oktibbeha school consolidation order passed by the Legislature last year, while editing its associated Miss. Code.
As written, both bills call for Holloway to lead both districts this year and allow him to enact local financial mechanisms needed to support school improvements. They call on the Mississippi Department of Education to empower Holloway with the ability to plan and assign school grades, programs, services and curriculum. Also, Holloway would be granted "full authority to non-renew the employment contracts" of all former OCSD employees during the 2015-2016 academic year, or the first year both systems are merged.
Short-term funding needs are addressed in both bills with language allowing Holloway to immediately issue a county millage levy for up to $2.2 million to be used toward county elementary school renovations, while long-term efforts are covered with a clause permitting him to issue up to $10 million in bonds across a 10-year period. The long-term funding mechanism can be approved through a reverse referendum, the House and Senate bills state.
Specific Mississippi State University funding requests for its planned grades 6-7 campus and pre-kindergarten program's expansion were not addressed in either bill, but it is believed monies raised with the long-term funding mechanisms can be shifted over as needed due to the legislation's language, Holloway said Friday.
"From the first meeting a year ago with Toby Barker, our board and Tyrone Ellis (Starkville's Democratic House of Representatives member), we offered to take over the county district's administration," Holloway said. "We weren't talking about merging but at least helping out by managing payroll, technology and special education functions. I'm willing to do that (lead OCSD), but I'm not the one promoting it. However, it makes good sense because it makes getting the merger done easier.
"The Legislature is taking everything we asked for seriously," Holloway added, referring to the comprehensive nature of both bills. "I don't know of a single item they haven't paid attention to."
Rex Buffington, a member of the local consolidation committee who, with other local public education supporters, has recently worked with lawmakers while they wrote the legislation, called the two bills "major wins for the community."
"(The legislation) gives the community what we need to make consolidation successful," he said. "I think everybody is really ready to work hard and see this thing all the way to the finish line. We started working with (lawmakers) back during the first week in the legislative session. It was a great process for everyone, and it's great to see that they're all willing to do what's necessary down there to make us successful up here."
Legislators also acknowledged the merger committee's requests about an expiring school board term that could cause a prolonged vacancy and continued commitments from the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors.
As written, HB 716 calls for the current SSD Board of Trustees to take over as the unified system's directors. However, the first seat expiring post-consolidation -- school board member Eric Heiselt's Starkville aldermen-appointed position ends March 2016 -- would become an elected seat chosen by residents who live outside of Starkville. The board currently has only one seat, Keith Coble's, which is elected by the population outside of Starkville's municipal boundaries but within SSD territory that extends outside city limits.
Both bills call for Heiselt's position to remain in office until Jan. 1, 2017, thereby preventing an extended vacancy since an election would not be held until November 2016. The elected school board member will take over his or her position at the beginning of 2017.
Legislation also calls for county supervisors to continue providing office space, furnishings and utilities for the consolidated school system's superintendent. The board is bound by state law to provide those to the county school system but not the city's district.
The consolidation committee made no recommendations about the future of OCSD's current administrative home, the county education committee, but supervisors previously said the building could be reconfigured as the new emergency management home if the incoming school board has no use for the structure.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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