February 13, 2013 10:33:56 AM
The Starkville School District Board of Trustees may not be able to take any action in regards to mandatory consolidation bill, but at their Tuesday night meeting, SSD officials and trustees urged stakeholders to voice their concerns to representatives in Jackson.
The regularly scheduled meeting was the first opportunity trustees have had to formally discuss Miss. H.B. 716, which calls for the mandatory consolidation of public school districts in Oktibbeha County by 2015.
SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway has said several times that it seems the sentiment in Jackson is that the Oktibbeha County School District is failing, the SSD is performing well, so pairing the two would benefit the overall educational experience in the county.
The city school district received a "C" rating in the Mississippi Department of Education's 2010-2011 accountability rankings released in September.
The county school district received a "D" and was placed under state control at the end of September 2012, with MDE officials citing violations of 29 of 30 required accreditation standards, including having a record of poor student performance, inaccurate and unreported personnel and payroll documents, failure to report complete and accurate board meeting minutes and school buses which failed to meet safety inspections.
Trustees were notified of the proposed bill on a Thursday and requested at a meeting in Jackson the next morning. Holloway, SSD Board of Trustees President Keith Coble, Trustee Lee Brand and Trustee Eddie Myles scrambled to make it down for the "courtesy" hearing.
"We went," Brand said. "But there is no weight we can throw behind this. They let us know that us being called to Jackson was a courtesy and that next year, we won't have that courtesy."
No representative from the OCSD was called to attend the meeting.
The bill passed through the Mississippi House Education Committee the following Thursday, Jan. 31, but with some amendments that included temporarily keeping the lines for the schools the same and allowing the current SSD trustees to remain until the end of the current term in March 2015. There was also a provision added that two districts' MDE rankings would remain separate through 2018.
But even with the amendments, Holloway, SSD officials and trustees are worried the funding for such an undertaking will not be made available.
There is currently $1 million set aside for the consolidation in the bill, which notes that only $200,000 is to be spent by each of the joining districts annually.
"My sense is we are going to be in a dilemma, because even if there is a will to come up with the extra money, this is an authorization bill not an appropriation bill," Coble said. "Promises are being made but not by the people that can make them come about."
Holloway pointed out that consolidation is a workable option, but not in the time frame the bill in proposing. He said facilities are his biggest concern, but that OCSD's curriculum and technological capabilities are also something he fears would be difficult to bring up to speed in such a short time.
"The legislation process will move too fast for us to be able to tackle those issues," Holloway said. "This is too big an issue for Starkville, because if we fail, it affects MSU, it affects business, it affects the economy, it affects the quality of life."
Brand agreed with Holloway but turned his attention to a crowd that had arrived late to the meeting. The crowd of about 20 was made up of OCSD stakeholders who were also holding a discussion on consolidation Tuesday night. They had come to hear what the SSD board of trustees had to say on the matter.
"It is not fair for the county that they had no one (in Jackson) to represent them," Brand said. "I am wide open to the talks of consolidation, but not when someone in Jackson is mandating it. The people involved have got to get on the phone, we cannot change what is in motion."
At the beginning of the meeting, it was pointed out that there was a possibility that, in the rush to get down to Jackson for the first hearing with legislators, the SSD board of trustees technically violated the state's Open Meetings Act by sending more than two trustees.
Board Attorney Dolton McAlpin said because the board had sent a quorum capable of taking action, there was a violation. He added that no repercussions would likely come from the violation but recommended that the board report the information to the state Ethics Commission anyway.
He also recommended that the board send no more than two representatives in the future.