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House passes amended school merger bill


Carl Smith



House lawmakers passed an amended form of SB 2818, the Senate's Starkville-Oktibbeha County school merger bill, a day after the Senate unanimously passed its own strike-all amendment to the House's legislation. 


With its changes, the House 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 state-funded legal representation in any potential litigation involving Starkville School District's and Oktibbeha County School District's desegregation orders, that the Senate's changes to HB 833 also maintain. 


But due to varying language between the bills - the House's change does not outline specific local funding measures for campus improvements, for example - a joint House-Senate conference committee is expected to form and negotiate the final version of legislation. 


Since both HB 833's and SB 2818's introduction, area representatives have predicted the need for such a conference committee. 


State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said the committee, which is expected to be comprised of three members from the House and Senate education committees, should convene at near the end of this legislative term, either later this month or in early April. 


The bills' authors, Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, and Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, are expected to be named to the committee, Chism said. House Education Committee Chairman John L. Moore, R-Brandon, is also expected be named to the conference, Chism said, since committee chairmen are typically invited by the speaker of the house and lieutenant governor. 


Tollison serves as the Senate Education Committee Chairman. 


Chism, a House Education Committee member, himself could be named to the committee to provide local representation. Out of the 31-member House Education Committee, Chism is the only lawmaker who represents a portion of Oktibbeha County. 


Besides Tollison, it is unclear who will serve on the conference committee from the Senate side. No local representatives serve on the Senate Education Committee. 


A conference committee was needed last year after the Senate amended HB 716, the original Starkville-Oktibbeha County school merger bill. Barker, Chism and Moore represented the House, while Sens. Nancy Adams Collins, R-Tupelo, Tony Smith, R-Picayune, and Tollison represented the Senate. Collins is the Senate Education Committee's vice chairman. 


As originally filed this year, HB 833 and SB 2818 called for SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway's early appointment as OCSD conservator in July, but committee substitutes gutted those calls from their respective bills. 


If the language remains struck from a final version, Holloway would not take over as the unified school district's leader until the two systems merge in 2015. 


Last month, the Senate Education Committee struck the House bill's language, replacing it with its own bill and with a line stating 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. 


Such an explicit call is absent from the changes passed by the House Wednesday. 


Previously, officials close to the consolidation process acknowledged dissent created locally and with the Mississippi Department of Education over the early appointment. As originally written,  


Holloway would have had full authority to non-renew contracts of former OCSD employees for the 2015-2016 school year.  


Chism has repeatedly said Holloway's early appointment is still on the table and could come back up for discussion during the 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 (Tollison) 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. "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 previously said of Holloway's early appointment. 


Jackson also represents a portion of Oktibbeha County.


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



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