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Senate signs off changes to school merger bill

 

Carl Smith

 

State senators passed an amended version of HB 833, one piece of Starkville-Oktibbeha County school consolidation legislation working its way through the Legislature, Tuesday that explicitly outlines Oktibbeha County School District Conservator Margie Pulley's influence in 2015's state-mandated merger. 

 

The House Education Committee previously amended the Senate's own school merger bill, SB 2818, and the legislation awaits action by the full chamber. State lawmakers previously said they expect a joint House-Senate conference committee to form and negotiate a final bill due to the varying language between both working measures. 

 

Last month, the Senate Education Committee struck the House bill's language, replacing it with a line stating that OCSD's conservator "shall have the authority for the planning and assignment of school grades, programs, services, operations, staffing and alignment of curriculum" for the upcoming Starkville Consolidated School District. 

 

The Senate adjustment also preserves recommendations made by the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure that were previously approved by the House, including requests to fund 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. 

 

Legislation passed last year calls for the two districts to merge July 1, 2015. Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway will guide the unified district. 

 

Originally, HB 833 and SB 2818 called for Holloway's early appointment as OCSD's conservator in July, but that language was gutted from both pieces of legislation. Officials close to the consolidation process previously acknowledged dissent created locally and within the Mississippi Department of Education by the original bills, which also granted Holloway full authority to non-renew contracts of former OCSD employees for the 2015-2016 school year. 

 

Last week, state Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, told the Dispatch that Holloway's early appointment was still on the table and could come back for discussion during conference. Both he and state Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, said they are in favor of the move and would continue to stump for its re-emergence if it is included in the committee's final agreement.  

 

"I asked (Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford) over the microphone on the Senate floor if he still intended to (again discuss) the language, and he said he will re-address (Holloway's) early appointment," Jackson said after the Senate vote Tuesday. "Gray has been very good about accepting the commissions' recommendations - that's the local folks working hard for their children - and the conservator issue makes sense because it would save the state money and give Holloway insight into what's coming for a unified school district." 

 

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

 

"I can't imagine why MDE would oppose it," Jackson said of Holloway's early appointment. 

 

Members from both chambers' education committees, and the subgroup's chairs, are expected to comprise the joint House-Senate conference committee. Chism, a member of the House Education Committee, is expected to play a key role in conference negotiations, along with HB 833's author, state Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg.  

 

Tollison filed the merger bill's counterpart in the Senate.

 

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

 

 

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