CHICKSAW COUNTY – A bill to consolidate Chickasaw County Schools in Houlka and Okolona schools was killed in committee in the Mississippi Legislature this month, but the idea, which popped up last year, is far from dead.
Mississippi lawmakers were asked to consider administrative school consolidations in several counties this session. The bill affecting local schools was written by Representative Brad Mayo of Oxford, and did not require the closing of any schools, but moved the administrative duties and assets to a unified school district.
The bill called for a consolidation of the Okolona Separate School District and the Chickasaw County School District into the Chickasaw County School District.
“I was not for it,” said Houston Senator Russell Jolly. “I don’t see the value of putting a district that is in trouble in with a successful school district anywhere in this state. I don’t think that is fair.”
Chickasaw County Representative Preston Sullivan said he also did not support the legislation.
“I was glad to see that bill die, too,” said Sullivan. “The people I have talked to in both Okolona and Houlka want to keep their schools separate and responsive to their communities.”
But both Jolly and Sullivan said they were open to some kind of consolidation of administrative and general services such as food, vocational and specialized education services. Both also said they felt schools should stay open in their respective communities and keep their mascots and athletic teams.
Jolly serves on the Senate Education Committee and his wife is a retired teacher.
“I think Okolona came out from under conservatorship too quickly,” said Jolly. “Everything I have seen indicates you need to be under state control for about three years to see real improvements.”
The Okolona Municipal School District was placed under state control in February 2010 due to academic and financial failures. At that point the school board superintendents’ post were vacated and Dr. Mike Vinson was installed as conservator.
The State Board of Education voted in June 2012 to allow Okolona schools out from under conservatorship. A school board was named by the City of Okolona Board of Aldermen that fall and Superintendent Dexter Green was hired in early 2013.
The state Board of Education mandates 37 accreditation standards that school districts must meet. Those standards include such items as ensuring properly licensed personnel, providing student safety, publishing school board activities and meeting certain academic standards. Okolona initially had 34 violations of the 37 specific standards used to rate a school district.
Chickasaw County Schools in Houlka were given a “D” on the Mississippi Department of Education report card released in September. This was down from a “C” in 2012.
“I think there are other things we need to try first,” said Sullivan. “I think making sure all third-graders can read at a third-grade level before we pass them is a good program. I also think we need to hold teachers more accountable and realize parents have a stake in this, too. If kids don’t go to school or are problems, we need to get in touch with their parents and find out what is going on.”
State officials have repeatedly said should Okolona schools revert to conservatorship with failing academics, the district will be abolished or split up and merged with other districts or consolidated with area districts.
“I think it makes more sense to make Okolona students living in Monroe County go to Aberdeen schools which are also under conservatorship,” said Jolly. “I do know both schools need building repairs and who is going to pay for that. We not only need to do what is right for students but also what is right for taxpayer, too.”
Neither Jolly nor Sullivan offered a detailed solution to consolidating school boards, central office staff or superintendents.
Mayo’s bill died in the House Education and Appropriations Committee earlier this month. The idea of consolidating the states 152 school district into about 100 was initially proposed by former Gov. Haley Barbour in 2011.
Mayo said the change proposed by his bill would not require any state funding. The change would have required a 60 percent vote of the legislature and the governor’s signature to become law.
Sullivan, of Okolona, was elected to the Legislature in 2004 and is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and serves on the Appropriations, County Affairs and Legislative Budget committees. He is a Democrat and represents Calhoun, Chickasaw and Pontotoc counties.
Jolly, of Houston, was elected to the Legislature in 2011 and is vice-chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and serves on the Appropriations, Corrections, Education, Ethics and Highways and Transportation committees. He is a Democrat and represents Calhoun, Chickasaw, Grenada and Lee counties.
Mayo, a Republican, was elected to the Legislature representing Lafayette County in 2012 and sponsored legislation to allow charter school employees to participate in the Public Employees’ Retirement System and a bill to require all school board members be elected and to ask voters in school district’s if they wanted appointed rather than elected superintendents.
In addition to the consolidation of Chickasaw County and Okolona schools, Mayo’s bill called for joining:
• The Amory School District and the Aberdeen School District into the Amory-Aberdeen Consolidated School District.
• The Winona Separate School District and the Montgomery County School District into the Winona-Montgomery School District.
• The Water Valley School District and Coffeeville School District into the Yalobusha County School District.
• The North Panola and South Panola School Districts into the Panola County School District.
Eight of the state’s 152 districts are currently in conservatorship. The Aberdeen School District was placed under state control in April. Oktibbeha County Schools went under state control in September.