April 2, 2013 9:53:53 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
A joint House-Senate conference committee developed Monday compromises language in the Starkville-Oktibbeha consolidation bill which adds an additional Starkville School District representative to a local merger study committee and pushes its report deadline to March 1, 2014.
The bill now moves to the House and Senate for full floor votes. State Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, said legislators could take up the matter today or Wednesday. If approved, it would then head to Gov. Phil Bryant's desk.
The conference committee's compromise preserves most of a Senate Education Committee amendment which would establish the seven-member Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure to review possible consolidation. The group itself will not decide if consolidation should occur.
The previous Senate amendment said the study committee would meet within 30 days after the bill is signed by the governor and after receiving Department of Justice approval. Monday's conference committee report nixes DOJ-approval language and simply states the study group shall meet within 30 days of the bill's passage.
"It is my hope the commission can get started studying the issues as quickly as possible, and I stand ready to assist in any way possible," Barker said. "I am definitely satisfied with how the bill ended up."
The Senate previously called for that committee to be comprised of Interim State Superintendent Lynn House or a Mississippi Department of Education designee; two SSD representatives appointed by the local school board; two residents from Oktibbeha County School District territory; OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley; and a representative of Mississippi State University appointed by President Mark Keenum.
Monday's compromise reduces the county's public representation to one resident and increases SSD's to three appointees. SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway again said he would like to serve as a city school representative on the committee.
The committee's ability to recommend portions of Oktibbeha County School District be merged into districts in adjoining counties - a provision the full Senate tacked onto the bill earlier this month - was preserved in Monday's agreement.
The bill still points to the creation of the Starkville Consolidated School District, effective July 1, 2015. SSD administrators and the SSD Board of Trustees would continue to serve as the district's chief overseers, but the first vacant school board seat after consolidation "shall become an elected position and shall be filled by the election of a board member by the county board of supervisors."
Currently, the five-person SSD board of trustees consists of four Starkville Board of Aldermen-appointed seats and one elected by voters who reside outside the city limits but within SSD territory. HB 716 originally stated the first post-consolidation expiring seat would become appointed by the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, but later amendments changed that to an elected position.
SSD Board of Trustees Secretary Eric Heiselt's seat will expire March 2016, the first such position to do so after a 2015 merger.
Barker said legislators will appropriately fund consolidation efforts if they are agreed upon during the next legislative session. Barker's original House bill called for a specific funding source outside of usual ad valorem and MAEP allotments, but financial language was stripped from subsequent versions.
"I'm committed to being the biggest advocate for the residents of Starkville and Oktibbeha County. We know there are many needs to address with consolidation," he said. "I've already talked to appropriations committee members to make sure districts going through consolidation have top priorities. I don't think it would be responsible to pass a bill and walk away from the issue."
SSD Board of Trustees President Eddie Myles declined to comment Monday on the committee's compromise since he had yet to read the bill in its entirety.
"I think the House and Senate listened to our concerns and made these changes because of our concerns. This should help our position in the end," Holloway said. "From our strategic planning sessions, everyone thinks consolidation is an important issue to study and determine what's right and wrong."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch