January 25, 2014 10:58:20 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Between smiles and handshakes after signing their final consolidation report Friday, members of the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure turned their focus to lobbying lawmakers for legislative language and funding streams needed to successfully consolidate Oktibbeha County School District and Starkville School District.
The hardest work, they said, is ahead as the recommendations move to the Mississippi Legislature, where lawmakers will fine tune the logistical framework and potentially dedicate funding sources. Even before the merger committee's work was finalized, local groups supporting public education began traveling to Jackson, meeting with lawmakers and campaigning for pledges and commitments.
The group's report is an ambitious one: It seeks numerous legislative and budget items, including significant one-off and recurring funding streams, to facilitate 2015's impending merger.
After commemorating Friday's historic day, Mississippi Department of Education officials are expected to deliver the seven-person committee's recommendations to lawmakers Tuesday, a Starkville School District spokesperson said.
"There's a lot of work to be done," commission member Rex Buffington said Friday. "The unity we have developed through this process is unprecedented, and it has been vital to our success. "It has helped us to know that there is nothing we can't do, as long as we do it together."
Logistical plans hold
The new consolidated school district will partner with Mississippi State University to create a demonstration school district. Through that partnership, MSU will help facilitate the construction of a grades 6-7 school on or near its campus, while the two entities will establish and operate a pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in Oktibbeha County. MSU is expected to expand Pre-K opportunities across the state, "ultimately achieving universal availability of quality pre-kindergarten education for all 4-year-olds in Mississippi by 2025."
Current attendance zones for area elementary schools -- Sudduth, Ward Stewart, Henderson, East Oktibbeha and West Oktibbeha -- will remain in place during the districts' transition periods and through consolidation. While 6-7 graders will attend the SCSD-MSU partnership school once it is constructed, all 8-9 graders in the county will attend Armstrong Middle School once upgrades and renovations are completed. Also, county-wide sophomores, juniors and seniors will attend Starkville High School once it is renovated.
Until the partnership school is built, county sixth graders will continue to attend their respective elementary schools, while Armstrong Middle School sixth graders will move to Overstreet School.
Additionally, county seventh and eighth graders will move to AMS, and all 9-12 grade students will attend SHS.
Beginning in August 2014, SHS will expand its services to county high school pupils by offering additional Advanced Placement courses, fine arts offerings and other electives.
State funding request slightly down from first drafts
To help fund construction and operational costs associated with the SCSD-MSU partnership programs, the commission's report asks lawmakers for up to $18 million in new monies, a figure slightly lower than the original $20 million sought by commissioners.
The report asks the state to provide up to $9 million for construction of the new 6-7 campus and a single funding stream of up to $8 million for construction and operation of the pre-kindergarten school.
Commissioners also seek a five-year, $1 million annual stream for the program's operation. Additionally, the report asks lawmakers to provide "necessary funds required" for legal work securing an approval for the consolidation plan by the Department of Justice.
Both school systems remain under separate DOJ desegregation orders.
Local funding pledges seen as key to securing state monies
Numerous local funding recommendations remained in the commission's final report. Those mechanisms, commissioners say, are key to obtaining state-level support for funding consolidation. By showing the county is ready to carry its share of the financial burden, lawmakers could be more inclined to appropriate needed dollars to make the plan come to fruition. First, the commission recommends that OCSD contribute funds for SSD renovations, and that the conservator be allowed to seek a reverse county bond referendum for up to $10 million. If approved, those funds would be used to create parity between the two districts' buildings and create a more-equitable tax base between residents in Starkville and the outlying areas of the county.
Lawmakers are also asked to increase the county's debt limit cap from 15 percent to 20 percent of county-wide assessed valuation with the inclusion of the reverse referendum option.
Next, the commission asks lawmakers to direct OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley to issue a 15-year, 3-mill note levy to fund county elementary school renovations.
Finally, the report asks state leaders to direct the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors to continue its support of SCSD as it currently does for OCSD, "including, but not limited to, maintaining the current level of financial support." The board is also asked to continue providing office space, furnishings and utilities for SCSD's superintendent.
SCSD's leadership request remains intact
Once the two systems merge in 2015, SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway will become the unified system's leader. The consolidated system's board of trustees will consist of the current SSD Board of Trustees as of July 1 -- the state dissolved the county school board during its takeover and subsequent placement into conservatorship.
SSD's board is comprised of four seats appointed by the Starkville Board of Aldermen and one seat elected by residents outside of city limits but within SSD's expanded school zone. The first board vacancy, due to an expired term, will become an elected position and must be filled by an individual who lives outside of Starkville.
That board structure will hold for the consolidated school district: three members will be appointed by Starkville aldermen; one will be elected from outside city limits but within SSD's boundaries; and another will be elected from the outlying county area.
The merger committee previously recommended that the first expiring school board seat, which becomes vacant in 2016, to remain in place until January 2017, thereby allowing an election to take place before the vacancy occurs.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch