By NATHAN GREGORY
A bill to consolidate the school districts of Oktibbeha County and Starkville passed through the Mississippi House of Representatives Wednesday.
The bill’s next stop will be the state Senate Education Committee. If it passes through the committee and through the Senate, the districts will merge into the Starkville Consolidated School District effective July 1, 2015. The current attendance zones and school district boundaries would remain in place under the bill.
The bill calls for three seats for the school board of trustees to be appointed by the Starkville Board of Aldermen, with a seat expiring in March 2015 to be appointed by the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors. The district’s elected seat would remain in an elected position from territory outside the city limits but inside the boundaries of the current school district.
Miss. H.B. 716, originally filed last month by Republican Rep. Toby Barker, has received support from both Oktibbeha County Representatives Tyrone Ellis, a Democrat, and Gary Chism, a Republican.
Shortly after Barker — who represents Forrest and Lamar counties — filed the bill, Representatives from the Starkville School District Board of Trustees and Superintendent Lewis Holloway traveled to Jackson to speak with legislators, who subsequently made revisions and amendments. One of the amendments from the bill’s original form is how long it would be before the separation of Quality Distribution Index scores of schools located inside and outside the city limits would end. Chism said all QDI scores will be considered under the Starkville Consolidated School District umbrella beginning in 2018.
Chism said he is enthusiastic that the bill will pass through the Senate before the current session ends.
“I think this one is going to be smooth sailing,” Chism said. “One of the issues (SSD representatives) were talking about (when they met with legislators) was governance, and that’s addressed in this bill. The second thing they had great concern about was scholastic achievement and test scores for Oktibbeha County, but the county is going to remain under conservatorship before (SSD would) take over.
“The other part (SSD) was concerned about was some money to try to get (county) buildings up to par and to update technology. The (Mississippi) Department of Education will make an assessment on what money needs to be put in so we can give them some help to make this situation as palatable as possible,” he added. “We know (SSD doesn’t) want this, but we know there are 870 students in the county that need an equal education and they’re not getting it now.”
District 15 Sen. Gary Jackson, who represents portions of Oktibbeha County as well as six other counties, was less receptive to the idea and said more time should be taken to consider the ramifications of a merger.
“I don’t recall seeing notices of any public meetings for input from citizens or any other involved personnel … The quality of the school system in Starkville has a good effect on Mississippi State University. Their recruitment of professors is useful in that area,” Jackson said. “While this may be an idea that would be alright for the future or after further critique, I don’t think it’s been aired out enough yet to make a decision. I would like some time to study this and look at other options. I am against rushing into this without exploring all the options. At this point I could not vote to force this local decision without further investigations into other possibilities.”
Holloway said he was not satisfied with the House’s decision but still has concerns he’s said since first learning about the bill.
“The question is what the Senate will do to the bill and what will change. There are issues in the county with technology and curriculum assessments, and there are facilities that need to be addressed … We don’t have the reserves to the magnitude that we can fund those things,” Holloway said. “There are just too many questions. I think we all realize consolidation won’t go away. There needs to be conversations about what needs to occur and planning of how some merging could take place, but we need time to look at the options.”