Merger committee finalizes consolidation report

January 15, 2014 9:46:33 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


The long, arduous and sometimes contentious task of the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure came to a conclusion Tuesday as members agreed upon merger recommendations that the state department of education will soon pass on to lawmakers. 


Via teleconference, the seven-person board made few changes -- mostly edits to the draft's language -- and agreed to hold a signing ceremony at 10 a.m. on Jan. 24 at the Greensboro Center. The document is then expected to travel to Jackson, where Mississippi Department of Education officials will rubber stamp the report and distribute it to state representatives and Gov. Phil Bryant. 


Throughout the bulk of the group's work in 2013, many issues became clear: Oktibbeha County children will attend schools within the county; special financing options -- from local and state-level streams -- are needed to renovate existing Starkville School District and Oktibbeha County School District facilities and construct a new campus; and a proposed partnership with Mississippi State University could create a new paradigm with local and statewide educational efforts. 


Once the report is delivered to lawmakers, the group will dissolve, per state law. Committee members Tuesday said they will remain engaged with and active in consolidation efforts before, during and after OCSD merges with SSD in 2015. 


The report outlines a plan to secure local monies for upgrades and renovations while seeking up to $20 million in state funding for the construction of a grades 6-7 campus on MSU land and the creation of a pre-kindergarten program as a demonstration project. It also recommends a $1 million annual funding stream to operate the pre-k program.  


The report also recommends: allowing the school board term expiring in 2016 to remain in place until January 2017; amending state law to allow the entire consolidated district to receive a three-year waiver from state accountability and assessments; allowing OCSD to contribute funds toward SSD campus improvements, including Starkville High School cafeteria expansions and Overstreet School renovations; permitting OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley to seek a reverse bond referendum for up to $10 million toward renovations; allowing Pulley to issue up to a 15-mill, three-year note that will secure $1.5 million specifically for county elementary school projects; increasing the debt limit cap to 20 percent of countywide assessed value with the inclusion of the reverse referendum option when pursuing general obligation bonds; and funding legal fees for litigation efforts regarding the two district's desegregation orders. 


The only significant change to come out of Tuesday's teleconference was SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway's push to extend the reverse referendum option to about 10 years so that it applies to the consolidated school district. 


Holloway repeatedly pointed toward the county's unwillingness in the past to pass school bonds for campus improvements. A reverse referendum option would allow the district to go about a bond notice without taking the matter straight to the ballot. However, if enough residents petition the district, they can force the matter to a vote. 


His request at first divided the board. Commissioner Orlando Trainer, who also serves as the county board of supervisors president, said language, if approved, could become a detriment to the taxpayers. In this and the previous term, Trainer sought numerous intent notices for county road bonds, which, as proposed, were similar to the reverse referendum mechanism proposed by Holloway. Starkville's school superintendent countered, saying debt limitations set by state law prevent the current systems and the consolidated district from utilizing a blank check for improvements. 


Other commissioners expressed wariness with "asking too much" from state lawmakers, but once Holloway's proposal found support from Lee Brand and Rex Buffington, Trainer acquiesced, and the board moved forward with inserting the language into the final report.

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch