Steve Rogers

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Assistant News Director/Assignment Editor; degree in finance and administration from Yale University; 35 years experience in journalism.

Video: Forced Merger Leaves More Questions Than Answers

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI) — Unless the mood in the Legislature changes, Starkville and Oktibbeha County schools are going to be consolidated. That’s the sense Starkville school leaders left Jackson with after an intense meeting with law makers Friday.

And local legislators agree it’s likely to happen as momentum to consolidate school districts across the state to save money and improve academics grows.

Starkville and Oktibbeha County may just be the first of the “poster children” for the movement. And with a bill now filed in the state Senate to force the same thing, West Point and Clay County may not be far behind.

House Education Committee member Toby Parker of Hattiesburg filed a bill to consolidate the two districts. The move prompted a last minute meeting in Jackson. Starkville school leaders are worried. One of their lawmakers says they should be.

“The chances this year is that this is going to happen. We’re not going to go back and continue to fund Oktibbeha County schools,” stated State. Rep. Gary Chism, a Columbus Republican who also represents parts of Clay and Oktibbeha counties.

Former Governor Haley Barbour first proposed consolidating some of the state’s 152 school districts five years ago. The idea went nowhere at the time but has since momentum as lawmakers look for ways to save money and improve academics. Last year, the Drew, Sunflower and Bolivar County districts were joined because of bad finances and poor academic performance. But the process of mandating consolidation worries Starkville officials.

“I don’t think this is the correct way to do this, the Legislature just decides to put two districts together,” said Starkville Schools Superintendent Dr. Lewis Holloway.

“There’s too many issues from Oktibbeha County’s side as well as our side, too many questions that haven’t been answered. We need a much more community-involved process,” Holloway continued, noting he could envision a day when the two districts are merged but under a more reasoned process.

“The Legislature wants to completely overturn how our leadership, our existing leadership, our board members are chosen, how the superintendent is chosen. That’s disturbing,” he added, noting it makes little sense to throw out the management of a successful school district when the goal is to help a failing district.

Starkville is rated a successful district. Oktibbeha County is being overseen by the state for the second time. Starkville officials say other options exist.

“As we told lesgilators, we’re more than willing to help Oktibbeha County with professional expertise, technological expertise,” Holloway said.

The deal raises questions about the impact on Starkville schools. Board members asked legislators for some flexibility.

“There might be some flexibility for accountability for Starkville schools, we don’t want to destroy Starkville schools with the test scores maybe of Oktibbeha County,” Chism stated.

The legislation calls for the current Starkville administration and school board to be removed and an election be held in November 2014 to elect a new county wide board to set up the new district.

State Representative Tyrone Ellis who represents Starkville also has said he favors the measure.

A similar bill has been filed in the state Senate to consolidate the West Point and Clay County districts.

And while legislators say it’s going to happen, the local school districts are left with far more questions than answers.

Chief among them is who will bear the brunt of the costs associated with shifting students, merging computer and academic systems and finding enough classrooms. The proposed legislation offers Starkville $1 million over five years — $200,000 a year —  to help cover the costs. Administrators and even legislators who support the forced merger say that’s likely not nearly enough.

“$200,000 wouldn’t even get us off the pavement. There are a lot of facility needs, technological needs for the students in the county,” Holloway said.

“It’s probably, it’s probably way short,” Chism admitted, noting lawmakers have asked Starkville leaders to come back with some ideas on ways to make the merger plan “more palatable.”

The House Education Committee meets Tuesday.