School merger bills clear hurdles

April 4, 2013 10:10:31 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Mississippi legislators passed two individual bills Wednesday which will administratively combine school systems within Oktibbeha and Clay counties in 2015. 


Both the House and Senate approved a conference report for HB 716 - the Starkville-Oktibbeha merger bill - while the House moved forward SB 2637, the West Point-Clay consolidation measure. Senators previously approved the Clay County measure Tuesday. 


SB 2637 passed the House 110-2 Wednesday, while Senators supported the measure 52-0. State representatives supported the Starkville-Oktibbeha compromise 106-4, but an exact Senate vote tally was not posted on the Legislature's website at press time. 


The bills now head to Gov. Phil Bryant's desk for his approval. 


Both bills shared similar language during the legislative process - a call for the creation of local study committees to analyze potential merger issues and logistics - but conference committee members for Clay County's bill eventually settled on a direct consolidation measure for one of the state's smallest school systems. 


The Clay County bill would create the West Point Consolidated School District by merging the county school system with West Point city schools. A deal is already in place which sends county junior and high school students to the West Point School District. 


If signed into law, the Starkville-Oktibbeha bill calls for the creation of the seven-member Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure to locally study the impact of merging Oktibbeha County School District with Starkville School District. Conferees previously pushed back the committee's non-binding report to the Legislature, Mississippi Department of Education and the governor from Jan. 1, 2014 to March 1 of that same year. Those same lawmakers also increased local SSD representation on the board from two to three by decreasing county participation. 


Specific consolidation language as previously amended by the House was inserted back into HB 716 by conferees. The Starkville Consolidated School District would be created after merging Oktibbeha County School District with Starkville School District. 


Both bills call for consolidation effective July 1, 2015 and allow MDE to grant brief waivers from accountability and testing assessments. 


While the two measures received overwhelming support in the House, State Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, who was under the weather Wednesday, took to the Senate podium and mounted almost 30 minutes of opposition to the bill's language. 


Jackson, who represents a portion of Oktibbeha County, told lawmakers he supports the intent of the bill - finding a solution to the county school district's failing marks - but said he could not support the forced consolidation section of the bill.  


"There's nothing in here that says the study committee's recommendations have to be heard. Although the study report is listed, it serves no mandatory purpose," Jackson said in regard to the non-binding nature of the committee's 2014 report. "We know something needs to happen. We do not want any child to not have a good education." 


The local study committee, Jackson said, should have the real decision about how effectively consolidate, not legislators. By forcing a merger without true local input, representatives could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure by forcing it upon the community instead of allowing locals to take control of their destiny, he said. 


"I would love for our people to come to us with a report and say, 'This is how we think.' Right now, we have a report that says what we think ... actually, it says what the House thinks should be done," he said. "I would love to allow those folks who have a vested interest, those who have children in the district - I don't know of any more interest you could have than that - to come up with the report. I believe with all my heart if you do that with them, you'd have a group of people that were enthused, had wind in their sails, were ready to go and willing to do almost anything to prove their ideas work." 


As in previous Senate debates, Jackson warned fellow lawmakers that they could find themselves battling in the future for a fair, locally involved process for consolidation in their own counties. 


"Our plans are to consolidate more districts. One of them might be yours," he said. 


Jackson entered a motion to recommit the bill back to conference. Although Senate rules prevented him from making the motion with instructions, Jackson did say lawmakers should remove the forced consolidation language before Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves continued the legislative process. 


If Jackson's motion passed and one chamber chose not to invite conference again for the bill, the measure would have effectively died, Reeves told senators prior to a vote on the motion. 


"The worst thing that will happen if recommitted: If this bill does not pass, Section 1 (language creating the merger study committee) will be taken up by the people of Starkville and they will run like crazy," Jackson said. "They will have something together and ready for this body to look at because they know (consolidation) is coming regardless of today." 


Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison followed Jackson and urged senators to defeat the opposition motion and pass the bill as it stood. Jackson's move was defeated by a voice vote, and the bill then passed the Senate floor.

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