February 13, 2013 10:32:31 AM
Carl Smith - firstname.lastname@example.org
Supervisors will present a list of residents' concerns over a potential school consolidation to state lawmakers today, but the clock is ticking as far as how much input county residents will have in the legislative process.
District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams began drafting a resolution outlining county residents' main concerns - a lack of representation for a school merger, the need for more county representation on a future consolidated school board and the establishment of a grace period for graduation requirements - after a public forum was attended by almost 40 stakeholders.
HB 716, authored by state Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, calls for the creation of a consolidated countywide school district. As amended in the State House Education Committee earlier this month, a school merger would occur in 2015 if passed by legislators.
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said he would call on the House today to adjust its calendar and bring HB 716 to the floor either today or Thursday. If passed by the House, the bill would move to the Miss. Senate.
District 3 Supervisor Marvel Howard, who moderated Tuesday's informal public discussion on the consolidation bill, said he would contact Miss. Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, as soon as possible Wednesday to discuss the resolution.
Following the meeting, Ellis said he looked forward to receiving the resolution and called it "another valuable tool in the toolbox" for crafting consolidation legislation. He did not say if any bill changes would be presented on the House floor.
"At this point, we are up against time. As far as the House bill, who knows what we can do right now," Howard said referring to the legislative timeline. "We're unsure if we have time, but we'll see this process through and give our concerned residents a voice.
"We want to do our part to make this as smooth of a transition as possible (if consolidation occurs)," he added. "We want to make the final product something good for every single child in Oktibbeha County. That's the overwhelming reason why we were here tonight: to say our kids are important."
County residents voiced their dissatisfaction over a lack of representation with HB 716 during Tuesday's meeting. Many said they felt left out of the entire process, while others demanded more representation on a future consolidated school board.
As amended by the House Education Committee, the bill calls for the existing Starkville School District Board of Trustees to remain intact until a school board seat expires following consolidation. That position would then be appointed by the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, while the city would retain three appointed seats and the final seat would be determined by election.
When residents suggested an increase in county-appointed representation to a future school board, supervisors reminded them of the differences in school system population. Approximately 800 children attend the Oktibbeha County School District, while more than 4,000 are enrolled in the city school system.
Ellis said the county effectively would have two outlying-county representatives - not one - since the elected school board seat is decided by voters who live outside Starkville city limits but within the school district boundaries. Also, he said, school board members appointed by the city are county residents, too, and will approach their jobs with respect for all Oktibbeha County children.
As far as graduation guidelines, Ellis said that is an administrative decision which the Mississippi Department of Education would oversee.
"I've recently had 15 calls from county constituents about consolidation. Fourteen of them were all in favor of this move," he said Tuesday. "I've been pushing consolidation for about 20 years because I want all children to have access to a quality education.
Following an hour of back-and-forth dialogue between supervisors and concerned residents, Howard said he will schedule a future meeting between all county education stakeholders - county and city residents, supervisors, Starkville aldermen and SSD administrators. A meeting date was not set Tuesday.
"We have to decide soon what we really want out of this bill," Williams said. "We want to be able to sit at the table and help make decisions. I think Rep. Ellis will listen to you."
If the Legislature does not pass a consolidation bill this year, Howard said, it could again become an issue in the future. He referenced HB 234, authored by Miss. Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, which called for consolidated county school districts across the state. That bill died in the House Education Committee this legislative term.
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer adjourned Tuesday's meeting and asked parents to attend SSD's Board of Trustees meeting occurring that same time. Approximately 25 forum attendees left the Oktibbeha County Courthouse Annex and traveled to the Greensboro Center for the meeting.
"There's no secret I'm right in the middle of this and have a lot of insight. This thing keeps me up at night because it has a lot of potential," Trainer said before adjourning the public forum. "When this thing takes off and creates one of the best systems in the state, (lawmakers) are going to stick their chests out and say they did it. Do not think that the county schools do not have something positive to bring to the situation."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch