February 23, 2013 9:39:28 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Although House Bill 716 rapidly passed through the State House Education Committee and the full chamber, Mississippi Senators say they will take time to study the bill and address numerous questions surrounding potential school consolidation.
The bill calls for the creation of the Starkville Countywide Municipal Separate School District in 2015. It passed the House by an overwhelming majority last week and was sent Wednesday to the Senate Education Committee.
Senate Pro Tempore Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison began reviewing HB 716 last week, but the full committee has yet to start formal discussions on the bill.
It is unknown when the committee will begin talks on the school merger, but a March 5 deadline exists for Senate committee action on approved House bills.
"Personally, I'm for consolidation, but I won't go willy-nilly into this thing without reviewing it. The consensus of the Senate, from what I understand and from talking to Sen. Gary Jackson (R-French Camp), is everyone wants to see the bill, how it works and how it will work for constituents," Brown said.
Jackson, who represents a portion of Oktibbeha County, acknowledged the quick speed at which the bill was filed and passed through the House. He also acknowledged how many local constituents were left out of the bill's development.
Jackson said he believes local input and analysis should be included with any potential Oktibbeha County school consolidation, whether that occurs this legislative term or in the future.
"I do not feel like we have investigated all of the options, nor have we looked forward to all the consequences of a forced merger," Jackson said Saturday. "The problem right now is we have a conservator in the county schools who has relatively quite a lot of freedom to do what's needed to be done (to improve Oktibbeha County School District): identify the county school district's real problems. I believe we need to let Margie Pulley do her job.
"If there are solutions out there, I believe philosophically that local people are in a better place to make local decisions than those 100 miles away in Jackson, most of who have no dog in the hunt," he added.
Officials from the state department of education took over OCSD last year after the district was found in violation of numerous accreditation standards. Although the two county schools posted strong Quality Distribution Index scores, both high schools were given failing designations by the Mississippi Department of Education.
"There's a real disconnect (in OCSD), and I'd like the conservator to find out what is the problem," Jackson said referring to the disparity between county elementary and high school grades. "(With pending legislative action) ... it feels like we're thinking backward, trying to solve a problem before we figure out what the problem is."
Jackson, who was born in Starkville and graduated from the former Sturgis high school, said a lot of work is left up to Senators for solving all the issues surrounding school consolidation. He called for continued local input from Oktibbeha County constituents, but stopped short of saying he would vote against the bill.
More research is necessary before making that decision, Jackson said.
"I have an interest here in Oktibbeha County. I want those schools to do well," he said. "Our children deserve the best they can get, and I don't think we in Jackson have put the effort into this that needs to be there. If a decision for Oktibbeha County comes from Jackson, it needs to be done correctly."
Starkville School District stakeholders this week took formal stances against HB 716 and what they described as the bill's vague language and lack of clear solutions.
"The devil's in the details. I can't say whether I'd commit to doing (consolidation) now or a year from now since the bill just got over here. Either way, the committee needs to look at it, study it, get input for locals and figure out of consolidation will work," Brown said. "Something has to happen, though. Everyone worries what consolidation would mean, but the one thing that gets lost in the shuffle is the educational needs of these children. I know there's a turf battle going on, but someone has to back up and see what the absolute best is for those kids and for work force development."
Numerous calls to state Sen. Angela Turner, D-West Point, went unreturned this week. Both Jackson and Turner voted for SB 2637, which calls for consolidation between the Clay County School District and West Point city schools. That bill was referred to the House Education Committee.
Previously, state Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, said working agreements for the two consolidation bills between both chambers should provide support for legislative approval.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch