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School merger bills continuing toward conference


Carl Smith



State House and Senate members declined to concur on two amended Starkville-Oktibbeha County school merger bills this week, a sign that area Rep. Gary Chism's, R-Columbus, prediction of the need for a joint conference committee to negotiate the final legislation will come to fruition. 


Senators declined to concur on House changes to SB 2818 Wednesday, while House members passed on approving Senate changes to its own bill, HB 833, Tuesday. 


Both bills lay out slight changes to 2015's state-mandated consolidation, which was implemented last year with HB 716. 


As amended through the legislative process, each bill preserves requests submitted by the local merger study group, the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure. Due to varying language between the bills, however, a joint House-Senate conference committee is expected to form by early April, Chism predicted in mid-March. 


Three members from both House and Senate education committees will comprise the conference group. The bills' authors, Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, and Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, are expected to be named to the committee. House Education Committee Chairman John L. Moore, R-Brandon, is also expected to be named to the conference, Chism said earlier this month, 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, could be named as a conference committee member since he is the only Oktibbeha County representative on that chamber's sub-group. 


Besides Tollison, it is unclear who else will serve on the committee from the Senate. No local lawmakers serve on the Senate Education Committee. 


A similar conference committee formed last year to negotiate a final version of HB 716. 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, HB 833 and SB 2818 called for Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway's early appointment as Oktibbeha County School District conservator in July, but committee substitutes removed those lines of text from their respective bills. 


Chism previously told The Dispatch that Holloway's early appointment could again re-emerge in conference committee negotiations. He and Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, have repeatedly said they support the move as it would allow Holloway to make needed moves to prepare both districts for consolidation and save the state money as current OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley's services would no longer be needed. 




Questions remain about state funding for MSU partnership 


While lawmakers head toward new discussions on Holloway's early appointment, Mississippi State University is still working to finalize a price tag for its planned partnership with the Starkville Consolidated School District. 


Legislation currently working its way through the House and Senate would authorize MSU and the new school system to create a unique demonstration district, but both HB 833 and SB 2818 do not address funding requests for the partnership made by the local merger study group earlier this year. 


Through that partnership, a grades 6-7 campus will be constructed on or near the university's campus, and the two entities will establish and operate a pre-kindergarten program open to all 4-year-olds in Oktibbeha County. The university is expected to expand Pre-K opportunities across the state by 2025. 


The local study group asked lawmakers for up to $18 million in new monies to help fund construction and operational costs associated with the SCSD-MSU partnership. Specifically, its report requested the state provide up to $9 million for construction of the grades 6-7 campus and $8 million for construction and operation of the pre-kindergarten facility. 


Commissioners also asked for a five-year, $1 million annual stream for Pre-K operations. 


David Shaw, MSU's vice president for research and economic development, told The Dispatch last week that the university is actively recruiting donations for the projects and making headway on collecting new monies. Officials are still preparing construction and logistical plans for the partnership and attempting to lock down a final projected cost for building and operations, he said. 


Both Holloway and Shaw said a potential reverse referendum by the school district could help fund the construction costs. 


Logistically, a lot hinges on the construction of the grades 6-7 campus. 


OCSD sixth graders will attend their respective elementary schools, and Armstrong Middle School sixth graders will move to Overstreet School until the new campus is constructed. 


SSD officials predicted in October that the short-term plan would displace some Overstreet functions, including its alternative school. The campus also does not have a gymnasium, and officials last year said it would require air conditioning and cafeteria upgrades; however, the district could choose to transport in food from off-site locations.  


"I think there's great receptivity (from lawmakers for the SCSD-MSU partnership," Shaw said last week. "We're a long way from the end of the legislative session, but I'm feeling cautiously optimistic right now."


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



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