Calls for pre-K services dominate consolidation hearing

November 8, 2013 10:01:06 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said Thursday he is reminded of the importance of Oktibbeha County's upcoming school consolidation every time he looks at his daughter, Amelia. 


Standing before a crowd of Starkville School District and Oktibbeha County School District stakeholders Thursday, Wiseman, a 1999 graduate of Starkville High School who spent his youth in the city school system, said the county's two districts must successfully join for the benefit of not only his child, but also all local school children. 


"I have a 1-year-old daughter who I expect to be in this school system in just a few years," the mayor said. "I don't think there is any other public undertaking more important to the long-term growth and prosperity to this community than the work you have been doing over the past six months." 


Wiseman was one of 10 Oktibbeha County residents who delivered their praise and concerns to the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure Thursday at the Greensboro Center. The day's public hearing drew a significantly smaller crowd than a similar August session. Most speakers commended the group for its work and pressed it for exemplary results that will shape educational standards for coming decades. 


Although the session was intended for comments on the commission's tentative plan to logistically combine the two systems - a plan made public numerous meetings ago - most of the residents who took to the podium highlighted a provision that emerged late in the group's work sessions: pre-kindergarten services for 4-year-olds. 


The tentative plan calls for increasing the number of 4-year-old classes but does not map out a precise route or funding source for doing so. SSD currently operates two such classes, while the county's two elementary schools each have one. 


Special emphasis on pre-kindergarten opportunities emerged this week after Mississippi KIDS COUNT, a group located at Mississippi State University's Social Science Research Center, released a study showing that 41 percent of statewide kindergarten teachers believe they're students begin school unprepared. 


"We know from many studies around the country that young children who attend the pre-kindergarten program before they begin school are more likely to make higher test scores and more likely to go on to graduate from high school," said Lisa Long, a mother of a 3-year-old and a Starkville Foundation for Public Education board member. "They are less likely to repeat a grade or need special education. But most of all, children who are part of a pre-k program are given the confidence and jump start they need to start kindergarten with an enthusiasm and spark for learning which will make their first day of school as exciting and joyful as we, as parents, hope for." 


"Thank you to the commission for doing your best to ensure that our children in Starkville and Oktibbeha County are not part of the statistic," she added. 


Other speakers, including SSD Board of Trustees President Eddie Myles, called upon SSD and Mississippi State University to partner together and focus on pre-kindergarten efforts. 


"We need to be a demonstration district for pre-k in Mississippi," said Brother Rogers, Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership assistant director of programs. "Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas - every state that borders us has it. Jackson is going to implement it eventually statewide. We don't need to wait for them to tell us to do it. We need to do it for all of our kids in all of the county so we can reach the potential we need." 


"We have an amazing opportunity to be a leader in quality and widespread pre-kindergarten education," added Jennifer Gregory, the mother of a 2-year-old and CEO of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership. "Research...shows quality and focused pre-k education assists community efforts in tackling poverty, which is an issue that gravely affects families in our community." 


A majority of speakers also backed the district's recommendation of building a new campus for its students, a move that could facilitate long-term growth. The working plan calls for the construction of a grades 8-9 school for about $14 million. An aggressive build schedule, SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway previously said, would allow the new facility to be open for the 2016-2017 academic year and allow the district to move sixth and seventh graders to Armstrong Middle School. Ninth grade would be removed from SHS, thereby freeing up space in that location as it tends to all county high school students. 


"We need capacity as our public schools grow," Rogers said. "That will be a real legacy of this commission." 


Funding sources for construction of the new facility, as well as costs associated with city and county renovations and curriculum-matching efforts, have not been identified. The committee is expected to ask the Legislature for money, but members have repeatedly said the county should also help carry the burden as SSD is already near its bonding capacity. 


2015's merger will not only join the two systems, but also its finances. However, debt accrued by SSD in anticipation of consolidation will continue to be retired separately by taxpayers who reside in the system's former boundaries. Committee members and residents have shown concern over the fact that the county has historically opposed school bonds. 


Starkville resident Helen Sue Parrish, who served on two separate committees that passed bonds for Greensboro Center and SHS renovations, pressed committee member and Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer for financial support toward preparing OCSD's two elementary schools for consolidation. 


"To my knowledge, there have been no bonds passed to maintain and improve the county schools. Mr. Trainer, how do you expect the city to take in these elementary schools without the county first using bond money or other means to improve their buildings?" she asked. 


"The one solid the county has had numerous opportunities over many years to pass bond issues. They've never passed a bond issue," added Clyde Williams, a former SSD Board of Trustees member who served for about a decade. "In fact, they've rarely brought bond issues to the public." 


Holloway and Trainer verbally jostled last month when discussing how the two districts would tend to costs associated with the upcoming merger. Bill Welch, Mississippi Department of Education conservatorship director, previously told the board one of the county elementary schools will require about a $230,000 roofing project. In that same October meeting, Holloway presented a list of curriculum and other expenses, totaling about $600,000, to OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley that the county system should address before consolidation. In addition, Overstreet School requires about $200,000 worth of preparations before it's reconfigured as a temporary home for Starkville's sixth graders. 


When discussing finances and tax rates last month, Trainer alluded to county property values increasing under a unified school system, thereby adding to potential ad valorem collections in the future. He also alluded to C Spire's recent economic investment in Oktibbeha County, a move which is expected to net about $250,000 per year in additional school taxes, and other maneuvers that could significantly impact how much money a mill brings into the consolidated system. 


"Pollyanna does not produce revenues or results," Williams said. "All of the sanguine comments about the increased revenues coming to the county through consolidation are nothing more than sanguine at this point." 


The consolidation committee meets today for a daylong work session focusing on its logistical plan and preparations for the state-mandated merger report. An agenda obtained Thursday shows the board will discuss how to establish a tax base that ensures fairness for city and county residents, funding for improvements to West and East Oktibbeha elementary schools, alterations to Overstreet, streams for new construction costs, a partnership with MSU and other public and private entities and its pre-kindergarten expansion plan.

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