By CARL SMITH
As Mississippi House members and local educators begin discussions on a possible Oktibbeha County school merger, state senators are also working on similar measures across the state, including an effort to join Clay County educational systems.
Local representatives say this trend of school consolidations is one that will continue into the future.
Bills moving through the Senate would merge the Clay County and West Point school districts and also give agricultural high schools in Coahoma and Hinds counties to their county’s respective school boards.
Clay County, the smallest district in the state, spends almost $350,000 on administration costs for fewer than 150 students, Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison told the Associated Press Tuesday. The district already sends junior and high school students to the West Point school system.
Last year, lawmakers forced the merger of five Bolivar County school districts into two separate districts and joined three Sunflower County districts into one system.
Local state Reps. Gary Chism, a Republican, and Tyrone Ellis, a Democrat, both say they are in favor of Oktibbeha and Clay counties’ consolidation efforts and believe the Legislature will handle many more similar moves in the future.
“Probably next year, you’re going to have a small tornado; the following year, a hurricane; then after, a tsunami in terms of school consolidations,” Ellis, who represents Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, said. “School consolidations have to do with improving education and economic development. There’s nothing to do with politics and pomp and circumstance. Fortunately for our people, we have a seat at the table now so we are able to make adjustments, get considerations and take ownership in the process as it develops. We need to get things done now without it being shoved down our throats in the future.”
“Do I think it’s a trend? Yes. When a school district gets taken over, I don’t think we can allow them to remain like that,” Chism, who represents Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties, added. “We’re going to try to figure out some way to help. There is no need for us to keep going back in and trying over and over (with conservatorships) to save these school children. Every Mississippi child deserves a fair shot at a quality education.”
A call to Miss. Sen. Angela Turner went unreturned as of press time. Turner, a Democrat who represents Clay County and portions of Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Noxubee counties, previously declined to comment on the potential Oktibbeha County consolidation bill until she had enough time to read the measure.
Resources are a main reason behind the potential Clay County consolidation, both Chism and Ellis said. Lawmakers are approaching Oktibbeha County consolidation with educational standards in mind, they said, while it is not feasible to have multiple school districts in Clay County when West Point’s school district already takes on county high school students. Resources, both said, is the main issue in play in Clay County.
“Why would you have a superintendent and administration in a county school system that is dying on the vine every day when you can have that one under one roof by putting them into one system, saving money and bettering the district as a whole,” Ellis asked, referring to the potential Clay County merger. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
“I believe its grades seven through 12 that already attend West Point High School. (The county school district) can’t afford … to pay a superintendent and pay all of what’s necessary with that many children,” Chism added. “Clay County’s K-6 is making good grades; it’s just a matter of they can’t afford much.”
In 2012, Clay County Elementary School was labeled a high-performing school by the Mississippi Department of Education after it earned a “B” letter grade and a 171 Quality Distribution Index score. Districtwide, West Point city schools were rated “D” by MDE and placed on academic watch. The city school system earned a 139 QDI score.