By CARL SMITH
Starkville School District officials confirmed trustees and Superintendent Lewis Holloway will travel to Jackson today to discuss a Miss. House bill which calls for the consolidation of Oktibbeha County school districts.
State Rep. Toby Barker, a Republican who represents Forrest and Lamar counties, recently filled Miss. H.B. 716 which calls for the creation of Starkville Consolidated School District by joining Starkville School District and Oktibbeha County School District.
City school district officials confirmed they learned of the bill late Thursday and then made immediate travel plans.
The bill calls for the State Board of Education to serve local school boards with notice and instructions regarding a consolidation timetable on or before Sept. 1 and a special election of five trustees in November 2014. No trustee of under-performing school districts would be eligible for election to the new board of trustees, the bill states, nor would superintendents of under-performing districts be eligible for appointment as the consolidated district’s chief administrator.
When reached late Thursday, Barker, a member of the House Education Committee, cited the county school district’s previous time under conservatorship and continued low marks as the reason he filed the bill.
“I’m bringing this up for conversation because eventually you have to ask when has it gone on long enough. That’s the conversation the House Education Committee needs to have over the next few weeks. We have to see what capacity we have to help get these kids out of trouble,” he said. “Statewide, I think many would agree there are too many school districts and (education) is too top-heavy in respects to administration. We have to look at resources, leadership and community involvement. Nothing is decided yet, but we’re going to have to have this conversation and we’re going to have to solicit opinions from Starkville (residents) and get their thoughts on the matter.”
SSD Board of Trustees President Keith Coble said the bill “came out of the blue” Thursday while the district prepared for a strategic planning session.
“We’re really still trying to digest this,” he said. “We feel confident where we are as a district, and I feel this is a compliment; however, we’ll go about this methodically, try to understand everything and do the best we can.
“The one thing is I wouldn’t want anyone to jump to conclusions because it’s far too early to know if this would pass,” Coble added. “If it did, these things come along gradually.”
Last year, OCSD was taken over by the state after the district failed to meet numerous accreditation standards set by the Mississippi Department of Education. Before the takeover, OCSD received an overall “D” letter grade and an academic watch designation from MDE. Both county high schools — East Oktibbeha County High School and West Oktibbeha County High School — received failing marks, while its elementary schools scored higher. Three of the county’s four schools — East Oktibbeha County Elementary School (136), West Oktibbeha County Elementary School (176) and WOCHS (101) — recorded Quality Distribution Index scores over 100, but EOCHS failed to break the century mark, earning a 94.
SSD received an overall successful accountability rating by MDE in September. Ward Stewart, Henderson and Starkville High all received successful designations, while Armstrong Middle School was downgraded to academic watch. The overall district QDI score increased by four points to 155.
In December, the city school board handled a county student transfer situation by remaining aligned with previous board policies. Although Interim OCSD Conservator Jayne Sargent signed a release allowing county transfers, SSD’s previous board policy typically stood firm against accepting area transfer students, excluding those with special needs that their school districts could not accommodate and those with parents who work for the district.
Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer brought up the idea of consolidation between the first round of talks in November and the school board’s decision in December. Trainer also sought a transfer waiver for his children at the same time.
Only one SSD Board of Trustees member, Eddie Myles, discussed potential consolidation favorably last year.
“We’ve never had any school district lose accreditation like this and bring this situation to our front door,” Myles said in November. “In my heart, I’ll always envision that consolidation is possible in Oktibbeha County. When we looked for a superintendent, we saw Lewis Holloway had experience working in a large number of schools. My vision was we got a guy who could take care of a lot of kids and is in position to spearhead leadership.”
Reacting to the newly filed bill, Trainer said consolidation is an idea the community needs to discuss before action occurs.
“I think it’s a bad indictment on us as a community that this had to come out of Jackson for us to do this,” he said. “It gives us a sign of the times as to where we are. People are looking for ways to improve education and try new things. It’s definitely something we need to discuss, but we need to do that locally to figure out what we need to do for the good of all Oktibbeha County school children.”