Merger talks turn to neighboring school districts

September 5, 2013 10:28:03 AM

Carl Smith - csmith@cdispatch.com

 

During a recent listening session, members of the public urged the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School Structure to get down to brass tacks and begin substantial discussions on the pending city-county school merger. 

 

The commission will do that today. 

 

An agenda for the 5 p.m. meeting at the Oktibbeha County School District office shows superintendents of various systems -- Choctaw, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Webster counties; West Point and Louisville -- will deliver presentations on the possibility of taking Oktibbeha County students into their districts. 

 

The presentations are expected to serve as a way for the commission to gauge neighboring districts' interest and the current logistical status -- transportation and classroom space -- of their schools. 

 

The commission is not expected to make a decision on this issue today. 

 

A Senate amendment to the Starkville-Oktibbeha County merger legislation, HB 716, allows the committee to look into the viability of joining outlying county schools with their closest counterparts in an adjoining county. If legislators and Mississippi Department of Education officials agree to move one or multiple OCSD schools into a neighboring school district, transportation and funding - average daily attendance and ad valorem monies - issues would then need to be resolved. 

 

Starkville School District and OCSD educate about 5,250 students combined. Fewer than 1,000 children attend the county school district. 

 

"This is just more of a communicative process to determine their needs and capacities to take county students, and to give them an idea where (Oktibbeha) county students live close to their schools," SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said. "This is a preliminary conversation ... because we would still have to create a process to determine which county school children (would attend a neighboring school system) ... and then figure out (financing)." 

 

"We've all heard stories about parents and grandparents who walked miles to school. That was a hardship in those days. Even though it would still be a hardship now - it can be done - but if there is a better option, then we ought to look at that," commission member Rex Buffington said referencing the four OCSD campuses' locations in the corners of the county. 

 

"In my mind, it might not be fair to ask them to do that if a school that is much closer is an option for them," he added. "I do think that everybody should be assured as we look at other adjoining districts, my sense is there's not going to be any decision to send children to an adjoining district unless we determine that it's in the best interest of those children." 

 

Future listening sessions could be held on specific consolidation issues, Buffington said, including the out-of-county school option. 

 

"I think there's even a need ... to have meetings in the different parts of the county to address the particular concerns that parents have," he said. 

 

The commission enacted one suggestion from last month's listening session by moving its meeting time to later in the day so parents can attend. Stakeholders also told commissioners that the group should meet more often, a suggestion Buffington previously presented. 

 

Today's gathering only marks the fifth consolidation committee meeting, and the group faces a fast-approaching deadline to deliver its merger report to the Legislature. HB 716 set March as the official deadline, but members aim to have a working report ready for lawmakers in January. 

 

"I feel (the August public listening session) really opened the flow of communication. People are really getting the sense they can find good ways to communicate their ideas and desires to the commission," Buffington said. 

 

Residents can email any questions or comments on the merger process to Starkville_Oktibbeha@mde.k12.ms.us. MDE officials previously said they will gather submissions and provide answers for a planned Frequently Asked Questions guide.

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