Merger issues remain as legislative session approaches

October 28, 2013 9:51:44 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


As the start of the state's next legislative session approaches, consolidation committee members say two key November dates will help give clarity to the group's almost yearlong efforts. 


On Tuesday, the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure scheduled two dates pivotal to its report: a public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Greensboro Center, and a daylong board work session will follow the day after. The committee is expected to discuss via teleconference this week the hearing's agenda, which is expected to focus on merger logistics, as in which campuses will accommodate specific grades. 


Board members previously discussed setting a self-imposed winter deadline for its report since the Mississippi Legislature will convene its regular session in early January. The Starkville-Oktibbeha school merger bill -- HB 716 -- set March as a formal deadline for the report. No internal deadline was set, but members have said numerous times this year that the earlier it gives its report, the more time legislators will have to work through issues. 


The committee must still settle on a number of issues -- logistics; potential funding sources for construction and renovations; how Mississippi State University can partner with the new district; pre-kindergarten services; matching curriculums and extracurricular opportunities for all students -- before it submits the suggestions. 


"I think we all feel sometimes that we're making decisions based upon other decisions that were made years ago," said committee member Rex Buffington. "We're at that pivotal moment now where we're making decisions that will affect Oktibbeha County decades from now." 


Only one issue was settled this summer: Oktibbeha County schoolchildren will remain in the county, rather than neighboring county districts enrolling them in nearby campuses. Merger committee members moved away from that out-of-county possibility last month after only Louisville's school representative said his district was interested in taking in Oktibbeha County students. Representatives from Choctaw County, Clay County, West Point and Lowndes County all said they could not commit to the issue, while Noxubee and Webster counties' spokespersons delivered "No" answers. 


A Senate amendment to HB 716 charged the board with exploring the topic since Oktibbeha County's four campuses are located in the corners of the county. 


As for merger logistics, the board showed consensus to support short- and long-term plans that would preserve OCSD's two elementary schools, shift grades 10-12 to Starkville High School, construct a new campus for eighth and ninth graders and reconfigure Overstreet School for middle school students. 


The short-term plan would float the district through pending construction requests. If the district can secure funding for a new campus, Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway said the facility's targeted opening date would be for the 2016-2017 school year. 


"We have to really look at the structure and make a decision on if this is the right way to go," Buffington said. "We have to get the structure right. We also have to start looking at other things that we might able to do that will strengthen our district through this process. (Pre-kindergarten availability) comes to mind; so do partnerships with MSU and (East Mississippi Community College). We have to provide the best and fairest opportunities for all of our children, and we have to ask ourselves if we're doing all we really can to accomplish our goals." 


Commission members can identify the most ideal structure and its associated construction and renovation projects, but those efforts still require funding. The proposed grades 8-9 school could cost about $12 million, but funding constraints have the city system near its bonding capacity. SSD previously approved bonds that will tend to facility improvements in preparation for consolidation. The county electorate, however, has historically shied away from passing school bonds. 


One of OCSD's elementary schools requires an estimated $230,000 roofing project before consolidation occurs, and Holloway previously recommended OCSD spend money on curriculum needs to place the system in line with SSD before 2015. 


It remains unclear how those two issues will receive funding. Committee members previously floated the idea of asking for special legislation to increase SSD's bonding capacity, but Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, both told the Dispatch they were opposed to the idea and didn't see the pitch gaining traction in either the House or the Senate. 


"I don't think it's approaching them hat in hand but more calling on the Legislature to fund what they have ordered us to do. They're the ones who originated this consolidation," Buffington said. "I think along those lines that there was an implied commitment that they were going to help us to do make this successful. Just from talking with people in the Legislature, I think there's an expectation that funding will be required to make this work very well. In my sense, I think we'll have a good response from our representatives." 


"We're going to invite our legislative members so they can hear what people have to say about these issues," said Interim Mississippi Department of Education Superintendent Larry Drawdy. 


Drawdy also chairs merger committee meetings. 


"We want to make sure our plan has county and city support, that everyone is involved," he added. "The citizens of Oktibbeha County and Starkville have been exceptionally good about this overall consolidation effort, and I think everyone is behind the idea. Everything we're doing is about the betterment of children, whether they live inside or outside of the city."

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