April 10, 2013 9:28:24 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Starkville School District Board Attorney Dolton McAlpin says Department of Justice approval is needed for future consolidation with the county school district even though legislators OK'd the matter on April 3.
Both SSD and Oktibbeha County School District, McAlpin said, are still under federal desegregation orders. Any future merger would require Department of Justice approval to occur because of those orders, he said.
"We can do a lot of work (preparing for consolidation), but at the end of the day they could say no," SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said to school board members Tuesday.
McAlpin advised the board to contract for counsel with Holmes Adams, a desegregation lawyer who helped open the Jackson offices of Adams and Reese LLP, before a consolidation study commission gets too far into its work.
The Senate amendment to HB 716 which created the Commission on Starkville-Oktibbeha County School District Structure called for the commission to meet within 30 days of the act's approval by the DOJ. That language was removed from the bill's final version.
A word search for "desegregation" and "court order" in the final bill yields results only in Section 2, Part 4: "All administrative consolidations under this section shall be accomplished so as not to delay or in any manner negatively affect the desegregation of another school district in the county pursuant to court order."
The bill is still awaiting Gov. Phil Bryant's signature.
"Despite the fact that the Legislature believes it may have consolidated the school district, it won't happen until a federal judge says it's going to happen and the Department of Justice agrees. You can set up attendance zones ... and then the DOJ could say, 'No.' That's a potential nightmare," McAlpin told school board members Tuesday. "I really do think you need some advice, at least initially, about what you can expect and what the pitfalls are about the court order. You really don't want to make a lot of plans and then find out the Justice Department doesn't agree, nor does a federal judge agree with any of it.
"A federal judge trumps the Legislature, and I'm not sure they understand that," he added.
Holloway suggested the school district appeal for the order's removal, but McAlpin said Holmes' opinion is a federal judge would oppose the attempt.
The SSD superintendent is expected to approach OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley about splitting the costs associated with hiring outside counsel on the matter.
"We're not even out of the chute and we're spending money on consolidation ... and that's our kids' resources," Holloway said.
Once the school merger bill is signed into law, Holloway said the district should hold a special-call meeting to begin discussions on how to fill its three seats of the consolidation study committee. A merger report is due to the Legislature, governor and Mississippi Department of Education by March 1, 2014. The results of the study are not binding, and legislation still points to consolidation on July 1, 2015.
Holloway, who has said he would like to serve on the commission, told school board members that stakeholders with proven backgrounds in finance and law would be strong candidates for the group.
"We need someone that counts - someone that brings something to the table and has knowledge about our schools," he said. "We have so many unique people; that's the gift of our school district."
In other business, the school board began developing plans utilizing almost $2 million for district repair projects.
SSD was approved for $1.9 million in zero-interest loans from MDE when other school systems granted those same loans returned the money after scheduled projects did not proceed.
School board officials examined a prioritized district needs list and agreed SSD should proceed with projects to repair substandard roofs at Armstrong Middle School's gymnasium and Overstreet School. Three roof projects - those two and a leaky roof at Millsaps Career and Technology Center - were listed as the district's highest prioritized need.
Board members agreed to pass on Millsaps repairs due to the project's expense. Combined, the AMS gym and Overstreet roof projects are estimated at $690,205, while the Millsaps roof alone would cost an estimated $808,200. Since multiple patching projects have built up at the facility, Holloway said a complete tear-down and build-back project would be needed and accounts for the project's high cost.
The district can attend to numerous other projects on the prioritized list by passing on the Millsaps roof repair, including possibly addressing much-needed work at Starkville High School's track and football field, he said.
As listed on the prioritized projects list, redeveloping SHS' football field could cost an estimated $600,000, while track repairs are ballparked at $400,000. Holloway told the school board that project estimates could be priced higher than what the district would realize.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to do the football field and not the track. You could possibly do the track and not the football field," he said.
To stave off district costs, Holloway said athletics director Stan Miller agreed in principle to commit half of the $40,000 average yearly donations his department receives back to SSD for a 10-year period.
"We've had a No. 1 track team ... and won a state championship twice, but we've yet to see any of those kids run," SSD School Board President Eddie Myles said of the substandard track. "I believe the track itself will bring in money. Financially, I'm looking at what it can bring during football, soccer and jamborees. I'll always be 100 percent for it."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch