June 7, 2013 3:04:20 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Members of the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure introduced the idea of setting a self-imposed, early merger report deadline which would allow state lawmakers more time to address consolidation issues during the 2014 legislative session.
Discussion of the new deadline came Thursday during the group's first local meeting when members Rex Buffington and Lee Brand acknowledged the current deadline imposed by H.B. 716 - March 1, 2014 - falls near the end of next year's House and Senate sessions. Commissioners said creating a self-imposed deadline prior to the government-mandated due date would allow the group to deliver potential merger issues in a timely manner for legislative action.
The commission took no action on the matter or any consolidation issue - the meeting was simply a starting point in which members discussed numerous issues which will be fleshed out in the future.
Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway and Oktibbeha County School District Conservator Margie Pulley agreed to tour the county school district together in the coming weeks to begin determining facility needs. Commissioners did set a meeting time - 11 a.m., July 16 at the Oktibbeha County school headquarters on Main Street - for its next public gathering.
Although the Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger bill passed this legislative session, at least one challenge could keep consolidation from occurring.
Both school districts remain under a Department of Justice-mandated desegregation order stemming from civil rights issues from the previous century, and a merger would require that department's approval.
The SSD Board of Trustees is expected to contract with Holmes Adams, a desegregation lawyer who helped open the Jackson offices of Adams and Reese LLP, on the matter. Holloway asked Pulley Thursday for information pertaining to the racial makeup of the school district from a student and teacher standpoint and a copy of the district's desegregation order.
Bill Welch, the Mississippi Department of Education Conservatorship Bureau Director who co-chairs the consolidation committee with Interim Deputy State Superintendent Larry Drawdy, said Thursday HB 716 will be submitted to the DOJ for approval but did not give a specific date for the action. DOJ officials have 60 days to respond upon receipt of the submission.
The Senate amendment to HB 716 which created the merger group 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."
"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," School board attorney Dolton McAlpin said in April. "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."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch