A number of Oktibbeha County residents are gathering signatures in an effort to force a potential $13.2 million-maximum school bond to a voter referendum this year.
Public agitation has grown since Oktibbeha County School District filed legal announcements this month stating its intention to take on debt in lieu of construction needs associated with 2015’s state-mandated consolidation with Starkville School District.
If approved, the bonds are expected to at least finance the construction of a grades 6-7 demonstration school at Mississippi State University and could possibly assist the planned joint school district-university pre-kindergarten initiative.
But a tax increase could have a serious impact on county homeowners since only residents within OCSD’s territory — not those who live in Starkville and SSD’s extended area — would shoulder the debt service’s burden.
Earlier this year, Mississippi legislators approved a new consolidation bill that authorized OCSD Conservator Margie Pulley to proceed with acquiring local funds for construction efforts through the use of a reverse referendum.
The bill said Pulley can execute a bond unless 20 percent of qualified, OCSD-residing voters petition to put the issuance up for a countywide vote. Residents have until noon Jan. 13 to file a petition at OCSD’s Main Street headquarters. If they don’t, a hearing in which OCSD begins the bonding process is expected to follow.
Pulley has yet to respond to an email for comments sent by The Dispatch Monday.
Aubrey Ray, a Sturgis resident and former teacher-turned-school superintendent, and Dennis Daniels, who will qualify for next year’s District 3 county supervisor race, began collecting signatures Monday in an effort to stop the process they described as taxation without representation.
Daniels criticized Pulley’s 11th-hour bond notice — the legislature authorized the reverse referendum months ago but only now does OCSD announce its intention — as a “typical Washington D.C.” move put into motion at a time when many residents are not paying attention to politics due to the holidays.
“She put (the legal notice) into the paper when most residents are out of town for the holidays or for MSU’s bowl game,” Daniels said. “That alone reduced the pool of people who might sign a petition. It was a smart political move, but it hurts the voters. A single person that was not elected by the residents of Oktibbeha County or appointed by the residents of Oktibbeha County should not have the authority to tax. She has nothing to lose.”
Many residents, Ray said, reacted negatively once they discovered the “backhanded attempt” to raise taxes.
“I was in education for 36 years,” Ray said. “I know that you have to involve the public on the front end, tell them what your needs are and how the money will be spent, and discuss the costs. If you’re going to put a tax increase on people out here, put it up for a vote. They deserve that, especially since our tax base is strictly rural and has little industry.”
Since Monday, Daniels said he and Ray took their petition to the Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk’s office for inspection to ensure it meets the criteria needed to challenge the potential issuance. Copies were disbursed to about 40 individuals and businesses, Daniels said, but the duo couldn’t estimate how many signatures they had collected as of Tuesday afternoon.
“We have to have a little over 1,700, but we’re aiming for 2,000 just to be safe,” Ray said.
“I have people calling left and right wanting to sign this thing. I’ve personally given out 15 petitions to people so they could then go and collect signatures,” Daniels said. “There are a lot of people fired up over this issue.”
Gary Chesser, a resident affiliated with Starkville Tea Party, confirmed others associated with the organization are also gearing up efforts to at least put the bond out for a public vote.
“There are already people disenchanted and angry with education, especially with Common Core, but now there’s this,” he said. “The main advantage of being a county resident is to escape the high taxes of the city school district.”
Even elected county supervisors, who have no direct control over OCSD finances and bond issuances, are taking heat from constituents. District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said he fielded phone calls from angry residents until after 9 p.m. Monday.
“I don’t like the way it came out, and I think it needs to go to the polls,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m for or against a school bond, but I’m definitely in favor for putting that question to the public.”
OCSD’s first legal notice ran in a local media outlet on Dec. 22 and again Sunday. It states it will publish one more time on Jan. 5.
Its open-ended wording allows OCSD not only to use the funds to build a grades 6-7 campus, but also tend to a number of other issues, including purchases of school buses, textbooks and computers.
The Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure, a group the Legislature created and charged with studying the upcoming merger, previously called for $18 million from local and state levels for the two consolidated school district projects.
OCSD’s legal notice does not identify how much of the $13.2 million the district would need to facilitate construction, but additional revenue streams are expected to emerge during January’s legislative term.
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, who sits on the House Education Committee, told The Dispatch Monday that lawmakers are likely to open up the state’s public school building fund as a revenue stream.
Chism also said state Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, who originally filed the OCSD-SSD merger bill, is expected to file another piece of legislation that, if approved, will allow districts under consolidation mandates to have first crack at that specific nest egg.
Additionally, David Shaw, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development who also served on the consolidation study committee, told The Dispatch earlier this month that the university is attempting to raise $5 million for the grades 6-7 school’s construction. He identified its likely location as near the entrance to the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park, but plans have not yet been drawn.
A tax increase is guaranteed for OCSD residents after the bonds are issued, whether through a stroke of Pulley’s pen or by the will of the voters.
OCSD’s legal filing appears to cap debt service over 20 years, but it does not explicitly chart out how long residents within the district’s territory will pay for the loan.
Interest and principal payments could force a tax increase of about 13-15 mills if the 20-year service plan is implemented.
For fiscal year 2014-2015, supervisors approved a 111.88-mill county operating budget in which OCSD dedicated 55 mills for operations and 2.92 mills for school notes.
Pulley later increased the district’s bonding level to 3 mills to facilitate renovation projects at the two county elementary schools.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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