August 23, 2013 10:03:14 AM
Carl Smith - email@example.com
Twenty-six Oktibbeha County residents took to the Greensboro Center's auditorium stage Thursday with various concerns about an impending school merger, but the heart of their message was the same: consolidation provides an unprecedented opportunity to better educational efforts for all area children.
Thursday marked the first public hearing scheduled by the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School Structure, and residents took two minutes each to expound on the numerous issues associated with joining Oktibbeha County School District with the Starkville School District.
Although a contentious local issue when the Mississippi Legislature began working through the ins and outs of HB 716, the school merger bill, residents Thursday mostly appeared to be on the same page now as consolidation study group members say they will ramp up their efforts in the coming weeks.
Some residents delivered somber messages -- Jay Perry said the county, as a whole, "failed its children" by allowing the situation at OCSD to continue to decay, while Brother Rogers said district lines are artificial, "but children are real" in regard to the possible fate of the county's four schools - but most preached about the coming resurrection of an inclusive, community-supported county educational system, giving the forum a subdued pep rally feel for the potential of equal learning opportunities for all youth.
"How we get there will take a lot of hard work by you, the commissioners, and by us, as a community. I urge the commission to take this very seriously. Put all you've got into this, because we have got to get this right. To some people in the state, this might be another consolidation process, but to us, it's our entire future," Anne Buffington said. "We urge you to creatively think outside the box; to do so will take more an obligatory monthly commission needed to satisfy a legislative mandate. Our community stands ready to embrace the challenge, tackle everything ahead of us, explore the avenues that will create the potential for the Starkville Consolidated School District and to be a leader of every aspect of the educational arena."
Residents acknowledged the pressing timetable facing the commission and said the merger study should meet more often and hold issue-specific public discussions as the 2014 legislative session approaches. Board members set a 3 p.m. Sept. 5 time and date for its next meeting, but commission member and SSD Trustee Lee Brand said the gathering's time is expected to be pushed back to 5 p.m. so more parents can attend.
"I don't think I'm even going to have to suggest (more frequent meetings) again," said consolidation study group member Rex Buffington after the event. Buffington previously proposed that the board meet twice a month and self-impose a January 2014 deadline for its report to the Legislature.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said tough challenges remain for the study commission, but the positivity in the community should give traction to the area's most-pressing needs. Both he and Miss. Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, were in attendance Thursday. Jackson represents a portion of Oktibbeha County and previously fought to include a Senate amendment which allows the commission to study potentially placing one or more county campuses in neighboring school districts.
"Where we are on the calendar schedule, you can see this process going well already," he said referring to the night's robust discussions. "I was glad I was here. They've got some work, but (a self-imposed January deadline) is doable. The Legislature will have to act on that report. The most important thing is to get a good plan, because we'll look at it, whatever it may be."
"I think crunch time started months ago, but from a local perspective, our commissioners have hit the ground running," Jackson added. "I was pleasantly surprised by the positivity tonight. I think we're going to be all right."
As of Thursday night, Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman, three city aldermen -- Scott Maynard, Jason Walker and Lisa Wynn -- and county Supervisors Orlando Trainer and Marvell Howard have all signed the Parents for Public School Starkville's and Starkville Foundation for Public Education's 10-point pledge to improve countywide education. The elected officials' signatures join those from the entire SSD Board of Trustees and four members of the consolidation committee. In all 224 individuals, businesses and public officials had signed the pledge by Thursday night.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch