February 1, 2013 11:03:50 AM
A proposed bill calling for the mandatory consolidation of school districts in Oktibbeha County and Starkville passed through the Mississippi House Education Committee Thursday, but not without some amendments to the original text.
If adopted, Missississippi H.B. 716 would force the districts to consolidate by 2015. Last Thursday, officials with the SSD were called to Jackson to discuss the surprise move with the bill's principal author, State Rep. Toby Barker, and the rest of the House Education Committee.
No representative from Oktibbeha County attended last Friday's meeting or subsequent ones. Originally, the bill called for the disbanding of both districts' boards of trustees in favor of a new, elected board.
But after some discussion with SSD Superintendent Dr. Lewis Holloway and other district officials, the House Education Committee added an amendment that allows the SSD board of trustees to remain through the end of the current term in March 2015. The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors will then appoint one seat, while the Starkville Board of Aldermen will appoint three and the final, fifth position would remain an elected position.
SSD Board of Trustees President Keith Coble, who traveled with Holloway to Jackson last week, said he was still partly in the dark about what had actually passed through the sub-committee on Thursday.
"No one on the committee has contacted us," Coble said. "I don't know which version they actually passed, but to my knowledge, they still haven't put any extra money or funding in there."
When the bill was filed, it allotted $1 million to the districts, with a maximum of $400,000 spent on the consolidated district -- $200,000 per year, per district.
Holloway pointed to the funding issue as one of the most complex, yet overlooked factors in the bill's process so far. He thinks more time and research should be done before any decisions are made.
"We still don't know anything about the funding or money for facilities other than what was in the original bill," Holloway said. "We just haven't really had enough time to consider the cost of repairing their facilities, the cost of putting our programs in the county, and determining where those funds will come from."
Other alternatives have yet to be examined, Holloway said. For instance, turning East Oktibbeha County High School over to the Lowndes County School District would remove a large burden from the SSD and could probably be shouldered by the LCSD.
Holloway, who has yet to read the exact wording of the amended bill, said he was told there was also a provision included that gave SSD control of OCSD's employee contracts in the spring of 2015, when contracts are up.
"So at least we would have a chance to look at all of our money and everything before it goes out," Holloway said.
The bill still must pass the House and the Senate before it becomes law, and even then, nothing is guaranteed.
Holloway said if anything disrupts the racial balance of the minority or majority of the district, the Department of Justice could step in to stop it. Considering both districts' demographics, he said that is a possibility.
"All this could pass, and the DOJ could say, 'No, you are changing the racial makeup of the district and that's not allowed," Holloway said. "They have the final say on what occurs."