March 6, 2013 10:33:39 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, confirmed the House Education Committee passed a Clay County school merger bill Tuesday with the same language it contained when introduced.
The same cannot be said for what the Senate Education Committee did to the Oktibbeha County school consolidation bill.
Committee members struck language within HB 716 and replaced it with a directive to form a seven-person commission comprised of Oktibbeha County constituents to review the county and city school districts and recommend how they can be effectively consolidated.
The amended bill now heads to the Senate floor for a full vote by late next week, another process which could provide more amendments to the legislation. A conference committee between state representatives and senators could be required to iron out the differences if the Senate again pushes the bill forward.
Tuesday's action does not guarantee consolidation will occur but does lay out more avenues for local input.
The commission, known as the Commission on Starkville-Oktibbeha County School District Structure, would be comprised of State Superintendent of Education Lynn House or a Mississippi Department of Education designee; two Starkville School District representatives appointed by its school board; two residents of the Oktibbeha County School District; Oktibbeha County School District Conservator Margie Pulley; and a Mississippi State University representative appointed by President Mark Keenum.
As prescribed by the Senate Education Committee, the local group would be tasked with reviewing the current structure of the two school districts and how a merger could improve the overall quality of county education; the structure of a future consolidated school board and how it should be established; capital facility needs for both districts and any improvements needed under consolidation; and how a merger could eliminate duplicate and wasteful administrative spending.
The legislation states the bill must receive Department of Justice approval before the group forms. Pending approval, formation, public hearings and study sessions, the group is tasked with delivering a full consolidation report to the Mississippi Legislature, Gov. Phil Bryant and MDE on or before Jan. 1, 2014.
Bill language also states the commission shall have the authority to raise and spend non-state funds and to contract with outside consultants during the process. MDE will provide staff and support as the commission deems appropriate, it says.
No further explanation for commission funding or staffing is provided in the bill.
"It's headed in the right direction - it's still not where I'd like it to be, but it's headed there," Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, said after the bill moved to the full Senate. "I hesitate to support this or not just yet because so many different changes can be made on the floor. At the end of the day, I hope we wind up with something that lets stakeholders - city and county stakeholders - have the voice they feel they need to have in this entire process. I also hope everyone understands this process still has a long way to go."
The legislation still points to a July 1, 2015 consolidation of the two districts.
The Senate Education Committee's substitute also changed how the consolidated school board would be seated in the future.
HB 716 previously stated SSD board members would assume similar responsibilities for the consolidated school district, but the first expiring term in 2015 would then become an Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors-appointed seat.
Tuesday's Senate amendments state the same overall provision is still in place, but the seat would become an elected seat filled by a representative who lives outside the city limits.
SSD board member Keith Coble holds a similar elected seat - he lives outside the city's municipal borders but within SSD territory. His term expires in March, but no county residents besides Coble qualified for the election.
SSD board member Lee Brand's term expires March 3, 2015. His seat is appointed by the Starkville Board of Aldermen.
The bill states no former superintendents or board members associated with OCSD when it was rated under-performing or placed in conservatorship are allowed to serve in similar positions with the consolidated school district.
'A seat at the table'
SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway traveled to Jackson Tuesday and sat in with the Senate Education Committee as it amended and moved the bill. After the meeting, Holloway said he still has concerns about how thoroughly a local committee could fully investigate all issues surrounding consolidation by the potential Jan. 1 deadline.
At least now, he said, city and county stakeholders have a seat at the table in regard to possible consolidation. Holloway also said he was interested in serving as one of SSD's appointed representatives.
"I think if this community were to go forward, they'd want to hear what people have to say about the concerns (surrounding consolidation) ... and then leverage what resources the school district has, MSU has, the State Department of Education has toward helping those students have the best opportunity available," he said. "I just want to be at the table so I can report ... how I think this would affect us. My job is to determine what I think the long-term effects are for Starkville and Starkville's residents."
SSD stakeholders were not as welcoming to the Senate's changes Tuesday.
Local opposition to HB 716 emerged in February when three SSD stakeholder groups co-signed a letter calling for the bill's dismissal. Signed by the Starkville PTO Executive Council, Parents for Public Schools Starkville Executive Board and the Starkville Foundation for Public Education Executive Board, the letter outlined a need for local solutions to any potential countywide educational changes.
The former bill's vague language on finances, debt and infrastructure was also a sticking point for many stakeholders.
Former Starkville alderman Sumner Davis said Tuesday the bill's amended language is still convoluted and causes concern. Davis' wife serves in a leadership role with the Henderson-Ward Stewart PTO.
"As the committee substitute is written, it would be my preference if 716 is killed completely and if local folks have an opportunity themselves to hammer out local solutions without anything being mandated," he said.
"It's encouraging to see senators ask for input and communication from local stakeholders, but it's still somewhat concerning that the input will not be binding," Starkville Foundation for Public Education President Doug Bedsaul said Tuesday. "Whatever the commission produces, the state department of education, it seems, still has the final say for all the rules and guidelines that would consolidate these districts.
"It would be preferable to create the commission, strike the rest of the bill and use the bindings of the commission for a new bill," he added.
The committee's end result does have its supporters. District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer said he viewed the group's action as a great solution to interject local voices into the legislative process.
Trainer and two other supervisors - District 3's Marvel Howard and District 5's Joe Williams - have said they support the idea of consolidation as long as county residents are represented in the process and a merger is properly facilitated by the state.
"This situation has lingered on too long, but these changes give us more than enough time to gather people together and work on real solutions for Oktibbeha County. Our children will be the benefactors of our work," Trainer said. "I hope citizens will consider me as possibly being an integral part as we move forward and maybe allow me to serve on this commission. I think about our possible position for education in the future and get excited."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch