By NATHAN GREGORY
The first opportunity for the Starkville School District Board of Trustees to discuss a state House bill that would consolidate the city and county school districts yielded encouragement from the board to stakeholders to call their representatives and make their opinions known.
Under proposed amendments to Miss. H.B. 716, the consolidated school district would officially form July 1, 2015 if passed by the Mississippi House and Senate. As of Jan. 31, the bill filed by Republican Rep. Toby Barker passed through the Miss. House Education Committee. The latest action that has been taken on the bill was a third reading on Feb. 5. The deadline for action through the Miss. Senate Education Committee is March 5.
Officials expressed discomfort with the current ambiguity of the amended version of the bill, which has not been published for public view, and issues that could arise from a merger between SSD and the Oktibbeha County School District. One of several concerns discussed was the gap between city and county facilities and how funding would be secured to improve school buildings in the county in the event of consolidation.
“My sense is that we’re going to be in a dilemma because even if there is a will to come up with some money, this is an authorization bill; it’s not an appropriations bill,” SSD Board President Keith Coble said. “Even if Toby Barker wanted to give us money, that’s not really his purview.”
“I talked with an architect (Tuesday) that worked with (OCSD) under the last conservator and he says there are huge building issues. There are code issues. If you do renovation you’ve got to take the whole building back up to complete code, and he says that’s huge,” SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said. “There may be better suggestions. There’s the issue of who is going to pay for those renovations.”
Also discussed was the possibility that the board violated the Open Meetings Act when enough members to constitute a quorum made immediate plans to travel to Jackson and speak with legislators upon learning that Barker filed the bill. Coble, SSD Board Vice President Eddie Myles and Assistant Secretary Lee Brand — three of the board’s five members — joined Holloway in meeting with legislators on short notice.
Board Attorney Dolton McAlpin said based on his research that SSD should consider informing the Mississippi Ethics Commission of the meeting.
“I think the fact that a quorum of the board capable of taking action had a meeting in Jackson with legislators is a technical violation of the Open Meetings Law. There obviously was no intent to hide things from the public. If a complaint were made to the ethics commission they might take a different view of it,” McAlpin said. “If you want to let them know your position about it and how it happened, I don’t think it would be a bad thing at all and I would recommend that you contact the ethics commission and tell them what happened. The problem with this is that you had a quorum technically able of taking action (even though) no action was taken and there was no intent of any action.”
When conversation shifted back toward the bill, Brand noted that no county representatives attended with hastily-called meeting between SSD trustees and state legislators, and their side needed to be known as legislators continue to tweak the bill’s language.
“We’re making a lot of talk on this side of this table that has bearing for our position about our school and the county but it was not fair to the county that the county had nobody at the meeting because of the way the meeting was called. My whole take on it is this: I am wide open to the talks of consolidation. What I don’t like is when somebody in Jackson is going to mandate to people in Starkville and Oktibbeha County how that’s going to happen,” Brand said. “It’s not going to be their kids impacted. It’s not going to be anybody there who is directly affected. That’s why … the people involved have got to get on the phone. We cannot change what is in motion and if you don’t call the people who represent you in Jackson on either side, city or county. What you’re going to get is something you don’t like in either direction because you’re not going to be heard if you don’t call.”
Holloway said he doesn’t believe the question of consolidation will go away until the county school district “becomes successful.” He added that he was not against consolidation because he believes SSD can help county school children succeed.
“I feel uncomfortable going (to Jackson) and saying how bad (OCSD is) and what they do and don’t do because I don’t know. I do have a concern that, yes, we could pull them up, but while we’re pulling them up, they’re pulling us down and what that would look like economically for us,” Holloway said. “I know there’s a lot of people who think … we ought to fight this (or) we ought to be for this, but the fact of the matter is we don’t have enough information. We haven’t had time to assess it. This is too big an issue for Starkville because if we fail, it affects MSU. It affects business. It affects the economy. It affects the quality of life. And people are saying, ‘… You’re not going to fail,’ but there’s no money to fix the things that need to be fixed.”
SSD Board Secretary Eric Heiselt urged stakeholders to take the concerns they’ve informed him about and voice them to their representatives.
“They’re the ones who are going to be able to change it. No one has released a final bill. We don’t know what it says … I hope the community can, whichever way you want to go on it, call Jackson, because that’s the people who are making the decisions,” Heiselt said. “Go home and make a phone call — at least one. That’s really all we can do at this point until we know the language in the final bill.”
Coble said conversation within the community is key in ensuring understanding between city and county stakeholders on what helps students the most.
“I’ve talked to people … who are for consolidation and against, and ultimately this community needs to have a conversation about education,” Coble said. “If this does happen or if it doesn’t happen this year we need to continue to have this conversation with the community at large.”