March 5, 2014 11:37:00 AM
A conference committee is needed to work out the differences in two Starkville-Oktibbeha County school merger bills after the House struck the Senate's school consolidation bill Tuesday and replaced it with its own language.
With its changes to SB 2818, the House committee preserved many recommendations previously submitted by the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure, including a request to extend an expiring 2016 school board seat into 2017 and for attorney general representation in any potential litigation involving Starkville School District's and Oktibbeha County School District's desegregation orders, but left out calls for local funding measures for city and county facilities present in the bill pushed forward by the Senate.
Last week, the Senate Education Committee gutted HB 833, the House's Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger counterpart, replacing it with language that reiterates OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley's guidance in 2015's state-mandated unification.
Both pieces of legislation await floor votes in their respective chambers. Because of each bill's varying language, a conference committee is expected to form and negotiate a final version.
As originally filed, both HB 833 and SB 2818 called for SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway's early appointment in July as OCSD conservator, thereby authorizing him to make financial moves - a local millage levy that would generate up to $2.2 million and a reverse referendum for up to $10 million across a 10-year period for city and county campus renovations - but that appointment was struck from both bills with subsequent committee substitutes. Instead, the revisions stated OCSD shall remain under Mississippi Department of Education control until June 30, 2015, without explicitly calling for a new conservator.
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said the early appointment is still on the table and could emerge in joint House-Senate negotiations. Chism, along with state Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, both told The Dispatch they are in favor of the move and would stump for it as legislation progresses this legislative term.
"I'm not sure where the State Department of Education falls on the issue - they will certainly have input on it - but I know of no reason to not let him take care of (OCSD) early. (State Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, is very thorough and accommodating. I think that he's talking in terms of allowing Holloway to go ahead and take over," Chism said of the House bill's author.
Chism acknowledged the move would save the state money since a conservator's salary would no longer be necessary with Holloway at OCSD's helm but said the early appointment could hinge on whether or not the committee goes forward with a bill explicitly authorizing Pulley to conduct local financial maneuvers.
The Senate's strike-all amendment preserves those calls.
Officials close to the consolidation process acknowledged dissent created locally by the original merger bills, which also granted Holloway full authority to non-renew contracts of former OCSD employees for the 2015-2016 school year.
Neither the merger committee, nor SSD asked the Legislature or MDE to move Holloway's appointment up a year - HB 716, the original school merger bill passed last year, states he will assume control of the consolidated school system July 1, 2015. That request was made by members of Parents for Public Schools Starkville when they independently began lobbying lawmakers before the merger committee's recommendations were presented in Jackson.
"From the first meeting a year ago with Toby Barker, our board and (state Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, we offered to take over the county district's administration. We weren't talking about merging but at least helping out by managing payroll, technology and special education functions," Holloway said Feb. 1 after both bills were originally introduced. "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."
Ellis previously told The Dispatch he was in favor of the early transition but drew a harder stance last month when he said county constituents need more involvement as the unified district moves forward.
Jackson, who was educated in Oktibbeha County, previously said he would push fellow lawmakers to re-introduce the language calling for Holloway's early appointment.
"I think it's something so common sense that you have to put it in there," he said last month. "I think it's worth fighting for. He needs free rein right now. Nothing would be harmed by that move."
Chism said he expects the House to take up the measure next week, while HB 833 is listed No. 59 on the Senate's Wednesday calendar. If passed by both chambers, the conference committee is expected to form. Members of the House and Senate education committees are expected to comprise the group.
Along with each committee chair, Chism, a sitting House Education Committee member, is expected to play a key role in negotiations.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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