The process of logistically joining Oktibbeha County’s two school systems will be a plan driven by raw numbers and dictated by campus capacity constraints and yet-to-be secured funding for potential construction and renovations.
The Commission on Consolidated Starkville School District Structure will meet Thursday and discuss how to successfully join the city and county districts. To do so means figuring out where to send an estimated 5,000 children and how to transport them.
Working ideas include preserving East and West Oktibbeha County elementary schools – which recently earned ‘C’ and ‘B’ accountability ratings from the Mississippi Department of Education – while moving county high school students to Starkville High School. Distance learning initiatives could play a factor in the future, and Mississippi State University officials confirmed last month that the university is conducting internal discussions about a possible partnership that will allow its college of education to have a more hands-on approach to teaching and demonstration.
But a significant question remains unanswered: How will the consolidated school system tend to middle school students?
Under the current working plans, the two county schools would continue servicing K-6 as the board showed no appetite toward expanding either campus to seventh grade due to the increased costs versus limited revenues associated with smaller schools. The two county elementary schools – a report dated Sept. 16 shows WOCES has 195 children enrolled, while EOCES services 324 students – are considerably smaller than their city counterparts: a Sept. 13 SSD enrollment report shows Sudduth Elementary (K-2) has almost 1,100 students, Ward-Stewart Elementary (fifth grade) services 712 children and Armstrong Middle School’s (6-8) sixth grade count is at 312.
Projections using both districts’ enrollment reports show middle school enrollment will increase by the state-mandated July 1, 2015 merger date. SSD currently has 943 seventh, eighth and ninth graders enrolled, but that figure will increase to 1,014 if its fifth, sixth and seventh grade enrollment holds. Using the same spectrum, the county’s middle school count will increase by three students to 175 in 2015.
While ninth graders are considered high school freshmen, the Dispatch included them in the equation since SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway pitched at least one reconfiguration idea that would pull ninth grade out of SHS and place those children in a new facility. If ninth grade remains at SHS, significant renovations would be needed to the campus’ cafeteria. SHS enrollment for 2015, with ninth grade included, is projected to eclipse the 1,500 student mark.
A new school for grades 8-9 is estimated to cost $14 million, Holloway said last week, but the district could also send the county’s eighth and ninth graders to AMS and then construct a new sixth and seventh grade school for a cheaper price.
Funding options for these possible construction projects remain unidentified. As independent school systems, SSD’s and OCSD’s bonding capacity and debt are currently separated. The city school system is close to the state-mandated debt limit, preventing it from rolling out any major bond packages until previous financings are retired. OCSD doesn’t possess the same bonding capabilities as the city system as the value of a single school mill goes further in Starkville than in the outlying county area – most major property developments are located within the city.
Consolidation members and MDE officials suggested seeking special legislation to increase SSD’s bonding capacity, but Miss. Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, both said they could not support the idea.
David Shaw, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development, told fellow consolidation committee members last week that the developing university partnership could utilize a demonstration school or program that would reach middle school students, but the university cannot simply take on an entire grade by itself. A new facility is not immediately needed to implement the plan, he said last week, but the university could pursue funding sources for such a site.
In addition, the county-owned education building, a Main Street building that houses OCSD administration, could be utilized by the district if supervisors do not decide to use the building for other county business. By moving offices and services, the district could free up space, but it would not be enough to significantly ease classroom constraints.
“We think the high school (option) works; the elementary (schools) in the county work,” Holloway said last week. “The problem is grades 7-8.”
The commission will meet 5 p.m. Thursday at the county education building.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch