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Time running out for school merger bill

March 3, 2013

By NATHAN GREGORY
news@starkvilledailynews.com

Two members of the state Senate Education Committee confirmed Friday that a passed House bill that would force consolidation of Oktibbeha County and Starkville City schools had not been introduced for consideration since the bill was referred to the committee Feb. 20.

The deadline for committee action is Tuesday, meaning H.B. 716 would die on the calendar if members do not vote to pass the bill to the full Senate by then.

As of Saturday, the committee is not scheduled to convene again until Tuesday at 9 a.m., according to the Senate committee schedule.

The Miss. House Education Committee passed the bill initially filed by Republican Rep. Toby Barker Jan. 31 before the full House passed it by a 107-6 vote Feb. 13.

The state took over the Oktibbeha County School District last September and placed it under conservatorship after continued failing state test scores at the high schools.

Calls made throughout the week to Senate Education Committee Chair Gray Tollison and Vice Chair Nancy Adams Collins were not returned, but two committee members who returned calls said if the bill was introduced by the Tuesday deadline for a committee vote, they would support passing the bill to the full Senate. Eight of the committee’s 15 members must vote in support of the bill for that to happen. The deadline for the full Senate to vote on the bill would be March 13 if it reached the floor.

Republican Dist. 1 Sen. Chris Massey said one reason for the bill not yet being introduced for a committee vote was that several double refer bills — legislation recommended for referral to two committees — were presented to the education committee last week, and those tend to take precedence over bills only referred to one committee.

Massey represents DeSoto County, which has the largest school system in the state. He said he would vote in favor of consolidating OCSD and Starkville School District.

“I think consolidating the administrative part of the school districts (into one) would be beneficial for the district by having more dollars that can go into the classroom,” Massey said. “Unless something was to change (in the bill), as the merits are today I would be in favor.”

Democrat Dist. 24 Sen. David Jordan said he would also support the legislation.

“Many times I would be against consolidation but I can see how this would be important to upgrade the education of the (county) students. Hearing from some of the individuals in the county, students would get a better education if the schools were consolidated because right there in Starkville the school district is much better but in Oktibbeha County they’re not faring as well,” Jordan said. “I was in (public education) for 33 years myself, and I know when things that should be done are not being done. After two times under conservatorship, it’s time to do something else rather than risking having a third time. Something is constantly not being corrected based on the number of conservators the state has put in place there.”

Democrat Dist. 10 Sen. Steve Hale said he had seen similar situations regarding school systems in his district going under conservatorship, including Tate County School District and North Panola School District — the latter currently under its second conservatorship. He said he would like to hear the merits of H.B. 716 before choosing which way he’ll vote, but his decision would be based on what he believed was best for the students in the Oktibbeha County and Starkville area.

“Students, parents and taxpayers in a school district that is failing deserve better from public education. There comes times when drastic measures have to be taken,” Hale said. “Our responsibility as policy makers is that we provide the best in public education that we can.”

The amount of support of the bill between city and county stakeholders has been uneven. During its Feb. 18 recess meeting, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of drafting a written statement supporting whatever action Mississippi legislature takes. Board President Orlando Trainer has also been a vocal supporter of consolidation.

In a letter to the editor published by Starkville Daily News on Feb. 20, members of the Starkville School District PTO Executive Council, Parents for Public Schools Starkville Executive Board and Starkville Foundation for Public Education Executive Board, voiced opposition to the bill, asking the Senate to delay action on the bill to allow for more time to explore “how best to achieve a successful solution that benefits children in both districts.”

“We understand that problems facing the Oktibbeha County School District are complex and have been beyond the ability of the State Department of Education to adequately address. We share concerns about the children in that district,” the organizations’ representatives stated in the letter. “However, we do not believe simply folding the Oktibbeha County School District into the Starkville School District without any forethought or planning will produce the desired results. In fact, we believe that such action would create additional problems rather than producing a workable solution.”

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