By STEVEN NALLEY
Starkville School District leaders said they came away with more questions than answers Friday when they met with State Rep. Toby Barker and other state legislators in Jackson to discuss a bill Barker filed to consolidate SSD and the Oktibbeha County School District.
SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said he, SSD Board of Trustees President Keith Coble and Assistant Secretary Lee Brand met with Rep. Barker of Hattiesburg, Rep. Tyrone Ellis of Starkville and Rep. Gary Chism of Columbus. Coble said the SSD has four primary concerns about the bill: the need for the OCSD to have a voice on the matter, a governance process that would unseat the SSD’s current leadership, questionable funding and the difficulties of combining the two districts’ infrastructures. It is important to note, Coble said, that the SSD is still evaluating the bill and hopes to develop a more complete stance on it in the near future.
“I just want to make sure everyone understands that we are digesting this bill at the same rate you are, because we just saw it yesterday,” Coble said. “Our board does not have a position. Our board has not had an opportunity to meet and react on this. It’s not clear to us what there is for us to react to. There are a lot of questions out there right now that we simply don’t have the answer to.”
Holloway said the SSD was apprised early in the legislative session about a bill that called for consolidation of all school districts with corresponding county school districts enrolling less than 1,000 students. He said this bill bore similarities to the bill Barker filed Thursday for the SSD-OCSD consolidation, in that both call for the merged districts’ boards to be replaced with trustees, one elected in each county supervisor’s district.
“Some of (the) justification (given by legislators we met with) was that the SSD is a successful school district according to the state’s rating system,” Holloway said. “They felt the administration was strong here and that good things were happening in Starkville, so why wouldn’t Starkville just take over Oktibbeha County? Gary Chism ... thought that appointed boards raise taxes too much, but the fact of the matter is, the current Starkville board has not raised taxes in the past seven years.”
Holloway said officials also discussed what measures would be taken if the districts were to merge, including further dissemination of the SSD’s SMART Boards, laptop lease program, Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment and more. Implementing these measures for the OCSD’s additional teachers and students would be costly, he said, and the bill’s provision for these costs is unclear.
“There was $1 million put in the bill, and it’s a little unclear what that’s for,” Holloway said. “It’s to be in a trust fund, and you can’t spend more than $200,000 in a year, but if we put one roof on a building, that’s $200,000, so that’s not very much money. I would say we had more questions than they had answers.”
All three officials said they had sympathy for the OCSD, which the state took over in October when the district failed to meet several state accreditation standards. Brand said he left the meeting concerned about the lack of representation from the OCSD in Friday’s discussion.
“If this is a consolidation effort, all parties ought to be at the table,” Brand said. “I think, as a board, we have tried to express our sympathy for the OCSD and what’s going on there. We also understand that those of us who (are on the board) have been put in this position to look out for the needs of the Starkville School District.”
OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley said she did not want to comment in detail on whether the bill would benefit the OCSD at this stage.
“I can go on and tell you that’s a legislative issue,” Pulley said. “I’m in Oktibbeha working, and working hard, and that’s all I can say right now.”
Coble said he believes the SSD has an obligation to talk with legislators and the OCSD to develop a solution that treats all parties fairly and responsibly. However, this would require the SSD to research details about test scores, financing and staffing.
“I feel confident Dr. Holloway and his team of administrative staff can work through that,” Coble said, “if we have enough time.”