Questions remain as school merger bill moves forward

February 14, 2013 10:30:49 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


The Mississippi House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday that calls for the consolidation of the Oktibbeha County School District and Starkville School District. 


State representatives Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, confirmed the House Education Committee substitute for HB 716 - an amended form of the original bill authored by state Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg - passed by a 107-6 margin. 


The bill now moves to the Senate. Ellis said senators should support the bill after an agreement was made with House lawmakers to back a Senate bill consolidating Clay County and West Point school districts. An amended version of the Clay County consolidation bill, SB 2637, also passed the Senate Wednesday. 


Angela Turner, D-West Point, did not respond to phone calls Wednesday. 


As amended, HB 716 would create the Starkville Countywide Municipal Separate School District on July 1, 2015, placing county schools under SSD administrative control. 


Both Ellis and Chism say the county school district's numerous failings provided impetus for legislators to consider consolidation. OCSD received a "D" accountability rating from the Mississippi Department of Education in September and was placed under state control at the end of that month. State education officials cited the school district for failing to meet 29 accreditation standards. SSD received a "C" accountability rating from MDE last year. 


Both Chism and Ellis say children will receive a fair chance at a quality education by combining school districts. In comparison, "Nobody is jubilant about doing something like this," Chism said shortly after Wednesday's vote. "If your real focus is on the 800 kids (who attend OCSD schools), this was really the only solution we could have. We can't go back to the governance of the Oktibbeha County School District and expect different results. Hopefully, we can continue to work through this process in the Senate and get this signed into law." 


Ellis said the consolidation was long overdue. 


"A 107-6 vote is a pretty strong indicator about how important we feel this bill is. We should have done this 20 or 30 years ago," Ellis added. "Not only does this create better educational opportunities for our children, but it will also help with future economic development. You cannot have economic development without an educated workforce. I think most of my constituents are in synch about this measure." 


Wednesday's legislative action followed two separate Tuesday public sessions on consolidation. 


In one, supervisors agreed to draft a resolution outlining county residents' concerns with a lack of representation in the entire consolidation process. SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway and school board members traveled to Jackson for a meeting with House Education Committee members after HB 716 was filed, but OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley has not approached the subject during administrative meetings. OCSD's elected school board was dissolved during the state takeover. 






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During SSD's school board meeting Tuesday, Holloway urged city school constituents to contact their representatives about the consolidation bill. 


Holloway again Wednesday repeated the same sentiment he shared in the school board meeting: the time frame for consolidation set by the legislature could cause numerous headaches with infrastructure. 


Large gaps exist between the two school districts in facilities, technology, curriculum and assessment. 


Holloway said he and other SSD administrators have more questions than answers in regard to what a merger would mean to the school district. 


"That's the whole problem with this law: There's been no assessment (of OCSD infrastructure)," Holloway said. "We certainly could come up with dollar amounts for buildings, technology and other changes, but at the end of the day right now, we're rushing to pass something that hasn't answered any questions. It would be a good exercise for the county and Starkville School District to see what we could merge and how to do so successfully. To say this is going to be good and not really know the end result for Starkville, there's just too much risk with that." 


Although lawmakers see an end goal in sight with consolidation, Holloway said the city school district has numerous facility needs of its own, not counting any additional needs created by taking over the administration of the county school system. 


SSD began strategic planning discussions in October when Holloway unveiled a facilities report to school board members. Using MGT's BASYS building assessment system which produced average scores based upon physical conditions, educational sustainability, technology readiness and site conditions, three SSD facilities - Ward-Stewart Elementary School, Henderson Elementary School and Starkville High School - scored 80 out of 100, while three other facilities - the Greensboro Center, Emerson Family Resource Center and Overstreet School - scored in the 60s. 


"(Representatives) asked MDE officials to do a facilities assessment for the county school district when we met in Jackson. MDE can't do that quickly," Holloway said. "There's no time to do the type of planning that needs to be done by the time it comes out of (the Miss. Senate Education Committee) in March." 


Besides current needs, Holloway said enrollment growth projections before consolidation discussions began could force the construction of a new middle school within a decade. 


"What I can't say loudly enough is that they're not going to be able to move the county into the city because we cannot sustain 240 more K-2 students in Sudduth (Elementary School) because it's already at maximum capacity. There's no place to even build a wing," he said. "If we were to build a fifth- and sixth-grade school in eight to 10 years, we're going to need a bond issue. I think we can show our (city) voters a need, but are we going to be able to convince county voters to pay for that if we merge?" 


Chism said he hopes legislators can appropriate more funding for the consolidated school district through appropriations, thereby helping solve any infrastructure needs found by MDE assessments. 


Barker's original bill called for five annual allocations of $200,000. If consolidated, the new school district would receive the county's MAEP allotment from the state, federal funds currently provided to the county and the county's ad valorem rates. 


"Being a special consolidated school district, what's going to happen is MDE will put some money into this. They know Starkville will need help with a merger, and after an evaluation, they'll know what needs are in the schools," Ellis said. "We're committed to making sure they have those real needs taken care of, from remodeling, bigger fixes and smaller repairs to getting technology installed. Those schools will have to be brought up to par. 


"I think those goals are more reachable now than they were (before the consolidation bill was passed)," he added. "The reason is now we'll have all of the people of Oktibbeha County working for the common good of the entire county. I think that will be an easier thing to do together than the way it was before." 


As the consolidation measure progresses, Holloway said SSD officials will focus communication efforts with Senate Education Committee members to identify key issues surrounding the potential merger.

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