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Senate amendment guts House school merger bill

 

Carl Smith

 

The Senate Education Committee struck the House's Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger bill, HB 833, Thursday, replacing it with its own language reiterating Oktibbeha County School District Conservator Margie Pulley's guidance in 2015's state-mandated unification. 

 

Many other Commission on Starkville School District Structure requests previously approved by the House, including requests to fund future legal representation in regard to both districts' desegregation orders, extend an expiring 2016 school board seat into 2017 and specify local funding pledges for school renovations, held in the Senate's amendment. 

 

The bill now heads to the Senate floor for confirmation. Early in the legislative term, state lawmakers predicted Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger bills would wind up in a conference committee where specific details surrounding the merger will be hammered out by a small band of representatives and senators. 

 

State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said the House Education Committee is expected to take up SB 2838 Tuesday. A similar strike-all amendment is expected from representatives. 

 

As originally filed, both HB 833 and its Senate counterpart called for Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway's early appointment as OCSD conservator this year. As SSD's leader, Holloway will lead the unified school system in 2015. 

 

Both chambers passed committee substitutes earlier this month which struck the language specific to Holloway's early appointment. Instead, legislation stated OCSD shall remain under Mississippi Department of Education control until June 30, 2015, without explicitly calling for a new conservator. 

 

Officials close to the consolidation process acknowledged dissent created locally by the original merger bills, which also granted Holloway full authority to non-renew all the contracts of former OCSD employees for the 2015-2016 school year. 

 

Both Chism and Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, supported Holloway's early appointment. Jackson, who was educated locally and also represents a portion of the county, previously said he would push fellow lawmakers to re-introduce the language calling for the early appointment. 

 

State Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, also previously backed the move but would go on to change his stance, saying county constituents need more involvement in the merger process as the unified district moves toward becoming a reality. 

 

Neither the merger committee, nor SSD asked the Legislature or the Mississippi Department of Education to move Holloway's appointment up a year. That request was made by members of Parents for Public School Starkville when they independently began lobbying lawmakers before the merger committee's recommendations were presented in Jackson. 

 

"It's something so common sense that you have to put it in there," Jackson said earlier this month. "I think it's worth fighting for. He needs free rein right now. Nothing would be harmed by that move." 

 

Local funding measures, including a 3-mill tax levy by OCSD and the district's ability to issue bonds utilizing a reverse referendum before and after consolidation occurs, are also preserved in the Senate change. New streams of funding are required to bring two OCSD campuses up to par for future use as elementary schools. SSD renovations are also required, and the county's revenue-creating maneuvers would be allowed to fund Starkville campus-specific projects in order for the system to support incoming OCSD students.

 

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

 

 

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