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Chism: School merger bill should easily pass

January 28, 2013

Miss. Rep. Gary Chism says a recently filed State House bill that would consolidate both Oktibbeha County School District and Starkville School District into one countywide educational system should easily pass through education subcommittees, the general education committee and the House itself.

Miss. H.B. 716, a bill that calls for the creation of the Starkville Consolidated School District, was filed last week by state Rep. Toby Barker. Barker is a representative of Forrest and Lamar counties. As written, the bill calls for the State Board of Education to serve the county school district with a notice and instructions regarding a merger timetable on or before Sept. 1 and a special election of five school board trustees in November 2014. The bill would also allocate $1 million to the new district in yearly $200,000 lump sums.

Chism said the draft’s language could be changed through committee to make it more palatable for school district officials. SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway, SSD Board of Trustees Keith Coble and school board member Lee Brand traveled to Jackson Friday and discussed the bill’s implications for the district with Rep. Tyrone Ellis, of Starkville, Barker and Chism.

Phone calls to Barker and Ellis went unreturned as of press time.
“Now that we’ve had the weekend to be able to research what we can and cannot do, I think that you’ll see the legislature bend over backward to help out. Are we going to need to give more money to do this? Yes. Are we going to need to give them time … without penalizing Starkville public schools on testing scores? Yes,” Chism said Monday. “I think what may happen is we’re going to do both of those. I think we’ll give them the freedom from test scores from a period of time. Also, the bill started with $200,000 (per year), but we’ll have to come up with more. I think the Mississippi Department of Education can act as a third-party observer for this and give us an idea for what monies we may need to put in for things like technology and building maintenance.”

A conference call on the bill between representatives was scheduled for Monday afternoon. Representatives were unavailable for comment after the discussion.

“Once they do that and develop ideas, I think you’ll see us strip language out of the bill and put the language we want into it,” Chism said before the scheduled conference call. “I expect us to have a bill we can work off of in committee that can go to the floor and easily pass.”

On Thursday, Barker cited the county school district’s multiple times under conservatorship and continued low marks as the reasons he filed the bill. SSD officials learned of the bill Thursday while preparing for a strategic planning session. Coble said the development “came out of the blue,” catching him and other trustees off guard.

Chism said the State Legislature should continue to analyze educational situations when school districts are taken over by the state.

“Any one of these school districts that go into conservatorship, we’re going to be looking to make changes. When one has gone through it twice, we’re definitely going to look at that situation,” he said referring to OCSD’s history. “Those 800 children that go to (Oktibbeha County School District) need a good education. If we look at this issue from the standpoint of those children, we feel like this is the only viable thing we can really do.

“We certainly do not want to hurt Starkville public schools,” Chism added. “They could still keep those (county) schools intact and have local principals out there, but they’d be helping manage the schools.
With the expertise in Starkville and the expertise, faculty and resources of Mississippi State University, we feel like (SSD) can handle this.”

Last week, Barker said opinions would be solicited from Oktibbeha County residents before the House moves forward on the issue. SSD officials have yet to take a position on the matter.

“Our board has not had an opportunity to meet and react on this,” Coble said during a Friday press conference after SSD officials met with legislators. “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.”

Calls to state Sen. Gary Jackson went unreturned as of press time, and Miss. Rep. Angela Turner declined to comment on the matter before fully researching it. Both legislators’ districts cover portions of Oktibbeha County.

Last year, OCSD was taken over by the state after the system failed to meet numerous accreditation standards set by MDE. Before the takeover, OCSD received an overall “D” letter grade and an academic watch designation from MDE.

Both county high schools — East Oktibbeha County High School and West Oktibbeha County High School — received failing marks, while its elementary schools fared better. Three of the county’s four schools — East Oktibbeha County Elementary School (136), West Oktibbeha County Elementary School (176) and WOCHS (101) recorded Quality Distribution Index scores over 100, but EOCHS failed to break the century mark, earning a 94.

As for the city school district, SSD received a successful overall accountability rating by MDE in September. Ward Stewart, Henderson and Starkville High all received successful designations, while Armstrong Middle School was downgraded to academic watch. The overall district QDI score increased by four points to 155.

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