Oktibbeha County School District Conservator Margie Pulley took no action Tuesday on a proposed $13.2 million bond for consolidation construction after opponents of the process delivered about 2,000 signatures from residents seeking an election on the matter.
OCSD will begin its own process to confirm the signatures were provided by those qualified to oppose the state-ordered reverse referendum: registered voters who reside within OCSD’s territory.
It is not known when the process will conclude.
Tensions ran high before Tuesday’s county meeting as pro-election organizers, led by former school superintendent Aubrey Ray and District 3 supervisor candidate Denny Daniels, delivered roughly 2,209 signatures to Pulley’s office minutes before the noon deadline.
If 1,526 qualified residents of OCSD’s territory — a figure previously cited by Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Glenn Hamilton — signed the petition, then Pulley will be unable to move forward with the bond without approval from 60 percent of the electorate in a future referendum.
Hamilton’s office vetted and confirmed 1,402 of the signatures as belonging to qualified electors before the entire petition was delivered to Pulley’s office, but school district officials refused to accept 131 of those certified signatures since they were delivered past the deadline.
That refusal led to intense debate between Daniels and OCSD’s legal representative as Daniels claimed the paperwork was in the building at noon but not on the second-floor desk until 12:01 p.m.
The two sides bickered back and forth over the petitions — one supporter mentioned his desire to hire an attorney and take the matter to court — but the standoff eased once OCSD employees began photocopying the lists so organizers could keep a record of their work.
Now, residents must wait for OCSD’s vetting process to conclude.
Those opposed to the school bond process took exception to Pulley’s December notice, saying the late filing was a deliberate, underhanded attempt to push the issue past voters during the holidays.
Opponents also questioned OCSD’s need for funding, saying they were not aware of how the district would use funding.
“Senate Bill 2818 dictated my actions as conservator regarding the bond issue. I followed the mandate of the Legislature,” Pulley said in reference to petitioners’ concerns. “(The need for construction and local funding sources were both) discussed in our commission meetings. We were above board, open and transparent. There were no hidden agendas, and I followed the letter of the law.”
“Dr. Pulley has done what she’s been required to by law and what’s right for the children of Oktibbeha County,” added SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway.
Historically, the county has not supported bonds for school improvement. The $13.2 million issuance, which would fund construction of a grades 6-7 demonstration school at Mississippi State University and purchase technology — laptops and smartboards — and buses, will have difficulty reaching the 60 percent vote threshold.
Since state-mandated consolidation efforts began in the Legislature two years ago, discussions on how to property join OCSD with Starkville School District have been held in open meetings. Lawmakers formed the Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure, which formed plans to close two county campuses and construct a demonstration school, with MSU’s help, that would service all school children.
Lawmakers last year approved the reverse referendum process to secure local-level funding for school upgrades and construction with SB 2818. That bill also instructed Pulley to execute a 3-mill levy for renovations to the two county elementary schools.
Local funding ‘imperative’ for consolidation
The importance of local funding for July’s state-mandated consolidation became even more apparent Monday when MSU unveiled its tentative demonstration school plans.
MSU will donate $5 million and almost 43 acres of land for its construction. The plan requires the $10 million from the OCSD bond issuance, and officials will request another $10 million from the Legislature.
If constructed, all grades 6-7 students within Oktibbeha County will attend the estimated 102,000-square-foot facility; if not, the numerous campuses within the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District could experience higher student-teacher ratios due to space issues.
State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, previously indicated that the Legislature might open up the state’s public school building fund for a small, one-time assistance. Monday, he said lawmakers are unlikely to give the university an additional $10 million for the school’s construction beyond what the university normally receives for building projects.
“I’m just afraid that when push comes to shove, MSU (officials are) going to say they don’t want to give up that money in order to build this demonstration school,” Chism said Monday. “(Consolidation) is going to happen. Whether the new construction comes along? I don’t know.”
Holloway previously said that for consolidation to effectively work, residents of both school systems must share the tax burden.
SSD is near its bonding capacity after issuing debt for various projects before the merger occurs.
If the county bond is approved, OCSD residents could face an estimated 13-mill tax increase.
“To be successful, we must have adequate funding sources to deliver innovative and engaging instruction through dynamic teaching and technological support in classrooms and buildings that provide appropriate space for learning to occur,” Holloway said Monday. “The cost of educating all children is a responsibility we share, and the tax burden should be equitable among all residents of Oktibbeha County.”
It is believed two separate taxing districts — OCSD’s and SSD’s former territories — will remain temporarily even after consolidation occurs as both areas must retire their separate debts.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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