By CARL SMITH
Starkville School District officials confirmed numerous amendments could be made to a state House bill that would preserve SSD administrators as the guiding forces behind a potential school merger.
Discussions between SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway, school board members and legislators began Friday after state Rep. Toby Barker filed Miss. H.B. 716, a bill that calls for the creation of the Starkville Consolidated School District following a merger between SSD and the Oktibbeha County School District.
Holloway confirmed the potential amendments Tuesday but also noted details of the bill are not yet finalized.
In an AlertNow email sent to school district stakeholders, SSD confirmed potential amendments could provide provisions to allow for the current school board to remain in place, but future boards would be made up of three city-appointed seats, one county-appointed seat and an elected seat. The term that expires in March 2015, the alert said, would be appointed by the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, while three other non-elected seats would be chosen by the Starkville Board of Aldermen. The district’s elected seat, held by SSD Board of Trustees President Keith Coble, would remain an elected seat from added territory outside the city limits but inside the boundaries of the current school district. Potential provisions would also allow Holloway and his administration to remain in place during consolidation.
Potential amendments would also allow school district boundaries and attendance zones to remain in place. Students would continue to attend schools as defined by those zones. Both districts would also receive separate accountability ratings for the next five years, according to the AlertNow email.
Under the proposed changes, the consolidated district would officially form July 1, 2015. Merger planning, however, would begin immediately if Miss. H.B. 716 is passed.
Holloway was quick to note during the press conference yesterday that many hurdles remain before the legislature makes a decision on the bill, including a Tuesday House Education subcommittee deadline.
The district and school board have not adopted an official position on the bill.
“Legislators have tried to work with us to make this bill better for Starkville. No one from the school board has approved this action, nor are (legislators) asking us to approve it,” Holloway said. “Our position is to do the best we can to protect Starkville and our students’ long-term interests if a bill like this is going to move forward.”
Gaps in infrastructure, technology and assessment exist between the two organizations, and funding issues remain as the legislature works over the bill. As filed, it would allocate $1 million to the new district in yearly $200,000 lump sums. Monday, Rep. Gary Chism agreed extra funding should be provided to give the new district a fighting chance.
SSD officials have requested additional funding, but a dollar amount has not been finalized. As a consolidated district, Starkville would receive the county’s MAEP allotment from the state, federal funds currently provided to the county and the county’s ad valorem returns.
“It’s all verbal discussions right now,” Holloway said. “We pointed out several items that need to be addressed, (including) facilities — which are major issues for some county schools — technology, SMART Boards, laptops and assessment systems. If this bill comes to be … (OCSD needs) to be moving, as a school district, to be more like ours. We think it would be important to immediately give MAP testing to set baselines for growth.”
The district also has other concerns, Holloway said, including potential personnel within the county district. The district has asked to have the same authority as its conservator during a merger and said legislators “would think about that.”
“We are very concerned about the outcome (of a merger) on Starkville. We’ve worked very hard to get Starkville where it is now and how it is serving our students,” Holloway said. “Where it goes from here, we really can’t predict. We still think it can be changed and we hope the legislature remains mindful.”
When contacted last week, Barker said public opinions in Starkville and Oktibbeha County would be solicited as the bill progressed. Holloway said Tuesday he has not heard of any organized effort by legislators to start dialogue on a possible school merger.
Calls to Barker went unreturned Tuesday.
“I think a lot of politics are going on. I’m not against consolidation in general because in some areas it makes sense; however, forced consolidation, I am not in favor of,” Holloway said. “I know people are emailing and calling their legislators. I would say to voters if they want to be heard, now is the time to do so.”
Miss. Rep. Tyrone Ellis, a Democrat, said Tuesday he discussed the potential amendments’ language with Barker. Both Ellis and Chism, a Republican, say they are in favor of consolidating Oktibbeha County schools.
“If we are fortunate enough to get the consolidation in Starkville and Oktibbeha County, we will be able to provide type of education for all county students necessary to provide a trainable workforce to help enhance economic and industrial development. You have to have a skilled labor pool able to draw from for economic development. You can’t just reach out of the sky and get someone that’s not educated, and industry people are having trouble with that,” Ellis said. “The major issue is having access to quality education in the city and the county. Why would we sit back and allow this type of inequity to exist in our county? We’re better than that.”
“The legislature knows we’re asking (SSD) to take a big chunk in regard to taking over another school district. They asked for time, governance and money; we’re doing our best to accommodate all of that. We’re attempting to be as considerate as possible,” Chism added. “The stigma of being taken over indicates a lot of things were wrong (at OCSD), and I think a successful Starkville school system, maybe even with help from Mississippi State University, can really enhance the children of Oktibbeha County and give them an equal education as everyone deserves.”
If Miss. H.B. 716 passes subcommittee Tuesday, it will be sent to the full House. If passed by House, the bill would then go to the state Senate. Should both the House and Senate have different versions of the bill, a conference committee between the two chambers would be needed to reach a mutual agreement. The amended version will not be posted online for public view until it has been approved by the full House Education Committee.