Former school board leader discusses merger history, alternatives

March 11, 2013 10:25:11 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


A former city school board president joined other stakeholder groups calling for the Oktibbeha-Starkville school merger bill's dismissal. 


Clyde Williams, who led the Starkville school board in the mid-1980s, said Friday a forced merger by the State Legislature without true community input would be a danger for county education. The politics surrounding the bill and any mandated consolidation, he said, are also troubling. 


State senators took no action Friday on a subcommittee's amendments to HB 716. Those amendments would create a local study commission charged with developing a plan for merging Oktibbeha County School District with Starkville School District in 2015. 


Miss. Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, said the Senate could take the bill up on the Senate floor sometime early this week. Legislators face a Thursday deadline to continue the legislative process. 


The bill, originally filed by Miss. Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, found overwhelming support in the House. Local Reps. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, have repeatedly said merging the two districts would solve many educational problems in Oktibbeha County. Chism, a member of the House Education Committee, said legislators would keep mergers on the table for any continuously failing school district. 


Since the bill's filing, local constituents - from county leaders to residents - have been vocal about the legislation, discussing what's needed in the future to help solve OCSD's educational woes and protesting a lack of representation when the bill was developed. 


First, county residents gathered during an informal public hearing in February moderated by District 3 Supervisor Marvel Howard, District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams. Meeting attendees said they felt like the legislature turned its back on the county by not asking for or guaranteeing more county input on the bill or the consolidated school board which would be formed after a merger. 


County supervisors then agreed later last month to draft a resolution supporting any merger bill signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant. Howard, Trainer and Joe Williams all say they are in favor of consolidation as long as it's done correctly by the legislature and Mississippi Department of Education. 


The merger bill offers a full performance of political theater by local and state representatives, Clyde Williams said.  


He asked: Where was this care and commitment to solving Oktibbeha County's educational issues before the bill was filed? 


"I find it interesting that the board has been monstrously silent about the issue until very recently. Board members, all of whom are county residents, have not done anything on their own to improve the county schools," he said. "I must think there's a political advantage to get into this now (once the bill was filed elsewhere). 


"I'm also unhappy with the idea of a state representative from Hattiesburg (filing a school merger bill for Oktibbeha County)," he added. "If you notice, he did not try to merge Hattiesburg schools with Forrest County schools or other adjacent ones." 


Once SSD officials were alerted to HB 716's January filing, Superintendent Lewis Holloway and other board members traveled to Jackson to speak with lawmakers about the process. Holloway again traveled to Jackson and met with Senate Education Committee members as the group moved the bill through the legislative process last week. 


A similar trip occurred almost 30 years ago. 


Williams and then-interim Starkville Superintendent Robert Garvue were called to a state Department of Education-led meeting with two county school representatives on a possible merger in April 1985. Garvue, who Williams called one of the strongest financial minds in education at the time, previously served as assistant director for analytical services in the Louisiana Department of Education from 1979-1984. 


"Only two people were involved from the district and two from the county. The thinking was some political figure from this part of the state must have called this meeting and urged us to get together," Williams said. 


Numerous factors led Garvue and Williams to take a stance against any possible consolidation.  


First, he said, a merger would prevent future public passage of bond issues for educational needs.  


Holloway has also expressed concern over what a merger would mean for future bond issuances. Even without the addition of responsibilities consolidation would bring, school officials are facing growing enrollment projections which could lead to the construction of a new physical campus in the future. 


"The key element was the county had never passed a bond issue for schools, and we knew we would have one the next year," Williams said. "We knew no bond issue would pass if we merged with the county. That was critical." 


The two city school representatives stuck to strict demands to ensure complete guidance of the county school system - including overseeing board policies and personnel matters - but Williams said county representatives balked at their demands and could not reach a mutual agreement toward a potential merger. 


Consolidation alternatives were presented at that 1985 meeting which could have helped county schoolchildren immediately. Some of those have been implemented since then - a working agreement between both school systems which allows students to enroll in city vocational programs, for example - but others, Williams said, still exist and could prove beneficial today. 


One such solution: allow children in failing county schools to attend others in neighboring counties. 


By allowing children to attend schools they live near instead of busing them into Starkville, he said students would not be forced on a bus at 5 a.m. and arrive back home late at night. They could then attend non-sub-performing schools. 


But county leaders balked at the idea of Oktibbeha County tax dollars supporting education for its students in other counties. 


"We suggested some ways we might be able to help the county with saving money or at least getting more efficient services. Another was to merge the transportation department by moving the county school bus services to our bus shop," Williams said. "With the county picking up part of the tab, we thought we had better employees and knew we had a larger, better-equipped garage. Also, we suggested there might be a way to ... find ways to merge purchasing and combine those for greater efficiency based upon the economy of scale. 


"We left that meeting with the idea that this wouldn't work. The county was not very interested in any of the things we proposed," he added. "They were particularly hostile to the idea of not automatically hiring county employees and hostile on merging county schools with schools in surrounding counties even though there was a shorter distance and less cost for transportation." 


Garvue's term as interim superintendent ended in the summer of 1985. He was replaced by David DeRuzzo, who previously led Louisville, Ky. and Jefferson Parish, La. school districts. 


An informal deal was discussed later to bus in county students for individual classes using the vocational student route, Williams said. As long as the schools had room for extra students, the county would be charged for each student on a per-course basis. 


"(The county) refused to take us up on that even though clearly there was no doubt this would be beneficial to students," he said. "The county was absolutely reluctant to do anything. They only came into the vocational center after the state Department of Education informed them they would be foolish not to do so." 


One of Williams' previous bosses, former Mississippi State University President Jim McComas, pitched another possible solution over lunch years ago. He previously served as a special assistant to the university leader from 1978-1979. 


"He asked what would happen if MSU took over the schools in the eastern part of the county and made it part of a demonstration school that MSU's College of Education would be responsible for, and the dean would be essentially the person to oversee it," Williams said. "We talked a bit, and he felt it would at least provide meaningful oversight and perhaps be a benefit for college education majors who were going to be teachers. I said I wouldn't have any problems, and we could work things out if there was any effect on our schools." 


McComas left MSU in 1985 before the idea gained traction. He went on to lead the University of Toledo from 1985-1988 and Virginia Tech from 1988-1993. 


Going forward, Williams said he isn't opposed to an administration-only merger which would allow outlying county communities to avoid losing their schools. 


"When a school leaves, it's pretty obvious the community is going to decline. It's been shown time after time," he said. "Giving kids a good education should take precedence over communities, but you can have both." 


This type of merger, he said, would work best as long as SSD's Board of Trustees is left intact and is the sole administrator for the two systems. All of the administration, from transportation and lunchroom programs to hiring and firing, should be done by the city board, he said. 


At the same time, Williams suggested developing county advisory boards made up of parents to represent each of the four outlying schools. 


An administrative-only merger would allow SSD management without violating various Department of Justice mandates on local education. 


No matter how the State Legislature proceeds, he believes dialogue on solving Oktibbeha County's educational needs should continue. 


"It's an idea that needs to be fixed," Williams said. "We deserve better alternatives for our kids."

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