By CARL SMITH
Two additional county supervisors say they are open for meetings to discuss issues that surround Oktibbeha County School District’s state takeover, lack of accreditation and potential student transfers to the Starkville School District following District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer’s suggestion for such gatherings.
During Tuesday’s SSD Board of Trustees meeting, Trainer petitioned the school board to allow his children to transfer into the city school system, citing the accreditation issues associated with OCSD’s recent takeover. OCSD Conservator Jayne Sargent signed a release allowing Trainer’s children to transfer to any school district willing to accept them, and SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said Sargent also gave a verbal commitment to allow similar transfers for all county students.
The school board tabled the matter when trustees said the district would set a precedent for all potential county transfers if they cast “Yay” or “Nay” votes at that time. In the last decade, SSD has typically stood firm against accepting area transfer students, excluding those with special needs that their respective school systems cannot accommodate. School Board attorney Dolton McAlpin said the district can change its board policy on the matter with a majority vote.
Before trustees tabled the matter, board member Eddie Myles brought up the issue of consolidation, saying he envisions a time when city and county pupils can receive a quality education under one system. After the meeting, Trainer suggested the board of supervisors should discuss the topic and any funding issues associated with potentially transferring county students to the city school district.
Consolidation of the two school systems is possible, Trainer said, or the county can seek to develop a hybrid system that shares resources.
Many hurdles are in place that could keep consolidation from occurring. SSD’s racial demographics are closely monitored on the federal level, and any percentage change would warrant approval from the Department of Justice. Also, the district’s financial situation would change with additional students. SSD can seek additional funding for transfer students, but no mechanism is in place to divert county ad valorem returns.
“The bottom line is that we receive about $4,100 per student from the state and receive another $6,000 from ad valorem. (Outlying county areas) have less money in ad valorem because that area is a majority of residential housing. Where Starkville gets ahead is from business ad valorem returns,” Holloway said. “The business side carries most of education. For example, in order to pay for one student’s education with a residence, that home would have to be worth $500,000.”
“I don’t want to diminish the quality of education we can deliver or put into question our accreditation. Also, I don’t want to stand in the way of Dr. Sargent and what she’s doing to help the county school system,” Holloway added. “Dr. Sargent has the ability to bring accreditation back to the system. The bottom line is I’m willing to discuss the issues (with elected officials), but I feel that (OCSD) can fix their problems much quicker than we can consolidate.”
Calls to Sargent’s office went unreturned as of press time.
On Thursday, District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams said he favors a consolidated school district. Although he acknowledged advantages of a smaller school system — better student-teacher ratios, for example — Williams said a unified system would provide a better longterm approach to funding issues.
“Over time, the county is probably not going to be able to fund education at the level which it is needed. It comes down to resources,” he said. “The funding we’re already providing to the county schools doesn’t seem to be enough to take care of all the system’s needs.
“This whole thing is about change that most of us are afraid of,” Williams added. “Once we make those changes, we’ll realize we didn’t have anything to be afraid of.”
Williams contacted a number of his constituents Thursday and said they all favor consolidation.
“Everyone said they do not believe the issues with the county school district can be rectified,” he said.
Despite calling for consolidation, Williams said he believes Sargent’s guidance will put OCSD in a position to improve its situation and the district will once again become accredited. District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard also said Sargent should be given time to right the ship. Meetings about the county transfer situation and any future consolidation, he said, are not appropriate at this time until the state has a chance to tackle the situation.
“I think it’s a little far reaching to talk about making those changes at the time. I think we need to give the state time to asses the situation, put together a plan of action and move forward,” Howard said. “(Sargent) had to come in and assess the situation to see exactly where the district was. Right now, we need to be there to support the conservator however we can through this situation.”
Board Vice President John Montgomery said he’s open to meetings with school administrators to help support both districts’ goals but stopped short of calling for consolidation. Assuring county students are afforded the best education should be all involved parties’ top priority, he said.
“I think we need to put our heads together and do what’s best for the students of Oktibbeha County. They come first, and we all want our children to do well. If we do not do our jobs, who winds up getting punished in the end are the students,” he said. “I’m on a fact-finding mission with this situation. I’m open to the best route, but we don’t know what that is right now. Until we get together and have that conversation, it can go several different directions. I hope all the supervisors look into finding the best route for our county’s children. We have to look at this situation and put personal interests aside.”