Concerns emerge over impact of consolidation

February 22, 2013 10:26:46 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Committed, caring and community minded -- that's how Starkville School District stakeholders said they want to define the essence of their school system during a strategic planning session Thursday at Hilton Garden Inn. 


SSD administration, educators and staff joined numerous city leaders, public education supporters and parents for last night's work session led by Phil Hardwick, a program manager with Mississippi State University's Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development. 


Two more strategic planning sessions are scheduled in the coming months. The entire process, SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said, will define where SSD is, what the stakeholders want the school system to be and how to get to that point. 


Groups ranging from five to 10 individuals per table were asked to answer what would make them proud of SSD in three years; what they believe the top three priorities of the district are; hold an open discussion about potential consolidation and form their thoughts into a one-sentence statement; and answer what they value most about the school system.  


While outlining the night's work session, Hardwick asked stakeholders to focus on understanding each other instead of debating  


"What we're doing here is inventing the future," Hardwick told stakeholders. 


Many stakeholders had overlapping answers when discussing the district's top priorities. Most agreed the district should focus on retaining highly qualified, engaging educators to help lower dropout rates and increase graduation numbers; maintaining sound investments in technology, infrastructure and other resources; closing the achievement gap; ensuring safety and security; and strengthening the community's involvement, from developing relationships with local higher institutions of learning and job providers to strengthening parental support. 


"We'd like to have a school district, not a district of schools," SSD Public Information Officer Nicole Thomas said when representing her session group. 


Hardwick asked the crowd to discuss potential consolidation with a hypothetical newspaper letter to the editor. Stakeholders agreed a quality education should be available to all Oktibbeha County students, but legislators must answer questions surrounding consolidation's implementation and funding before combining the city and county school systems.  


One group leader quoted Benjamin Franklin: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." Another said consolidation was the right thing to do, but it must be properly funded. 


"After defeating HB 716, school consolidation should only take place when sufficient funding is assured and all stakeholders - such as MSU, OCSD, SSD, the community and local business leaders, among others - have had major, meaningful input," Starkville Foundation for Public Education President Doug Bedsaul said when speaking for his work session group's hypothetical letter. 


Although SSD officials have not taken a stance on consolidation, Holloway said the district still has concerns about HB 716 that have not been addressed by legislators. Funding parameters are absent from the bill passed by the House, and numerous gaps in technology, infrastructure, testing and assessment exist between the city and county school systems. A detailed assessment of the Oktibbeha County School District has not been completed by the State School Board in conjunction with a possible merger. 


"The issues for us are timeliness and how fast it's going (through the Legislature) with such critical issues that impact our community, our businesses, our total being and lives," Holloway said prior to the start of the strategic planning session. "We just don't think moving forward quickly with such implications is a wise thing. 


"A lot of people are saying we're being negative," he added. "We're not." 


Lastly, a majority of said they valued the people who make up SSD - administration, faculty, staff and the community - and the relations developed between the school system and Starkville. Others also highlighted the district's potential, diversity, educational experience, arts, athletics, pride and purpose. 


"If you draw a 50-mile radius around Starkville, it's the best school district in the area," former Parents for Public Schools-Starkville President Brother Rogers said. 


During a summer SSD Board of Trustees work session, school board members defined and prioritized their own district values. 


"They value honesty and integrity above anything else. I think that's a lofty goal for all of us when we think about education and moving forward," Holloway said before the work session began. "They also very deeply value our people. If there's one thing I've heard more so in this district ... it's that people value our faculty and staff more than anything else - more than test scores. We certainly have some outstanding people." 


Hardwick closed the session by emphasizing the correlation between strong public schools and economic development. 


"It's kind of my sermon these days. If you have schools that people want to get into ... you're going to draw industry and see businesses created like you never have before," he said.

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