By STEVEN NALLEY
Oktibbeha County District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard called a special meeting Tuesday at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse Annex to inform county residents about legislation to consolidate the Oktibbeha County School District and the Starkville School District and voice these residents’ concerns to legislators.
Dozens of citizens attended, and several voiced vehement concerns not only about the amount of county representation set forth in the legislation but also about the OCSD’s loss of accreditation. Howard said the meeting was not technically a meeting of the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, but rather a meeting he called to gather citizens’ input and use it to draft a resolution on consolidation for State Rep. Tyrone Ellis to bring forward in Jackson.
“A lot of parents contacted me, and I think parents contacted some of the other supervisors... because there is not a county school board in place now,” Howard said. “A lot of parents didn’t feel like there was adequate representation (to legislators) on their kids’ behalf. They were speaking with the Starkville School District, and (nobody) from the county was being represented.”
District 2 Supervisor and board president Orlando Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams joined Howard in leading the meeting. Early on, Howard took a stand in favor of consolidating the two school districts.
“I am not opposed to consolidation. Actually, I think it’s a good thing if it’s done right, if it’s true consolidation,” Howard said. “All of our kids are important, and all of our kids can learn. We want the same education for every kid, from one end of the county to the other end of the county.”
Early on, one citizen asked why the OCSD did not have representation in Jackson like the SSD did, and Howard said it was because the OCSD was under conservatorship and thus had no school board or superintendent to send. Howard said the bill surprised him and several of his associates.
“This bill was presented unbeknownst to almost anybody,” Howard said.
Conversation quickly turned to the OCSD’s loss of accreditation. One of the attendees, Elizabeth Young, said it was important to make a distinction between the Quality Distribution Index (QDI) scores of county schools and the 29 accreditation standards the district failed, the latter of which triggered the conservatorship.
“We don’t need to say our district was taken over because of our schools failing (on the QDI scale),” Young said. “We have some good elementary schools.”
Howard said the OCSD’s situation may not be as dire as it appears, because every accreditation standard has its own checklist of standards to meet. For example, he said, if even one out of eight items on a given standard’s checklist is not met, then the standard as a whole is not met.
However, Howard said throughout the meeting that he did not want to focus on the conservatorship issue, because the state has already made its decision on that front.
“I understand there are some strong sentiments about how we got here,” Howard said. “Tonight is not about being here to blame anybody.”
Howard and his fellow supervisors passed out copies of House Bills 234 and 716, the first of which aims to consolidate schools into one district per county and the latter of which specifically consolidates the SSD and OCSD. Williams said these bills are in continual flux and under discussion, and as such, now is the time for the county to voice its concerns and get the bill changed. One key point Williams raised was the number of representatives the county could have on the consolidated district’s board: one out of a total of five.
“As of (Monday), there were three individuals that were going to be selected (by) the board of aldermen. One individual (would) be selected from outside the city limits but within the SSD,” Williams said. “So, that’s four people. The board of supervisors (would) make the last appointment.”
Multiple citizens then said they wanted the county to have more representation on the consolidated school board. Some said they wanted the city and county to each have the same number of representatives on the board. Howard said the reason legislators gave him for the higher city representation was that more than 4,000 students are enrolled in SSD schools and only about 800 are enrolled in OCSD schools. He said it could be argued that this would become a false distinction if the districts were consolidated.
“The fact of the matter is, once you consolidate, you’re no longer county and city,” Howard said.
Williams said he anticipates SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway remaining in place, leading some citizens to say the county should have three members on a five-member board to counterbalance two board members and a superintendent from the city. To determine what request to bring before legislators, Williams conducted a vote by a show of hands between two county representatives or three for the school board. A majority voted for three county representatives.
At the end of the meeting, Trainer invited attendees to come to an SSD meeting at the Greensboro Center, where the consolidation issue was also up for discussion. He said he also wants to investigate getting city and county representatives together for a forum on consolidation at a larger venue, possibly at the Greensboro Center. Howard said the date, time and location for this forum has not yet been determined.
Trainer also returned to Young’s point about strong OCSD elementary schools, and he said it is important for all parties to consider the positive consequences of consolidation.
“Do not think the county schools do not have something to bring to the table,” Trainer said. “The reason the state is involved in it is because it has a lot of potential. There’s a lot of positive things that can come out of it.”