Barbour panel leery of consolidation mandate

JACKSON – A commission established to make recommendations on school district consolidation does not appear to favor mandated mergers.
The Commissioner on Mississippi Educational Structure met for more than two hours Monday to discuss various recommendations surrounding school district consolidation. But its chairman, Aubrey Patterson of Tupelo, delayed a vote on a final report at least until the next meeting.
A time for that meeting will be set later.
Patterson said in May that he thought the commission could approve a final report without another meeting. But it soon became obvious that the commission had more work to do because of many questions on how and when to consolidate districts.
The panel was appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour, who had recommended consolidation as a way to save money and improve student results. But questions linger among some of his own commission members about the benefits of consolidation, both financial and otherwise.
“It is tough, but we knew this going in,” said commission member Claiborne Barksdale of Oxford.
During Monday’s meeting commission members voiced little support for mandating mergers based on recommendations of consultants.
The consultants, Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, recommended the merger of about 20 districts based on size, student performance and administrative costs.
“I am very concerned about mandating consolidation based on arbitrary statistics,” said House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who also is on Barbour’s commission.
“I am not convinced the end result will be in the best interest of kids.”
Brown also said “you are heading for disaster” if communities can’t be persuaded to embrace consolidation as a way to improve student performance.
Also meeting with skepticism was a recommendation to allow the state Board of Education to force a local school district to take over a poorly performing system that already has been taken over by the state.
Many members of the commission worried that a successful district would resist having to take over a poor performer.
But Barksdale said there is some logic to the argument that consolidation could solve a common problem in low-performing districts – poor leadership.
“One way to address a poor-performing district is to have new management,” Barksdale said.
But the consensus seems to be building around a recommendation that incentives be offered to entice consolidation. Some questioned how could the state afford incentives during the current budget crunch.
Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said in the long run it “enhances our economy” if an investment in consolidation incentives “produces better benefits for boys and girls.”
It also was not clear Monday whether commission members had reached a consensus on a proposal to mandate that local school districts within a county merge administrative functions, such as issuing paychecks and bulk purchasing.
Patterson said consolidation of those functions within a county “has considerable appeal … a ring of logic.”
But others questioned who would be in charge if the administration of one district had problems with the way those functions were being carried out, but had no power to make changes.
When naming the commission late last year, Barbour said he hoped the panel could finish its work in April, but he set no definitive timetable. On Monday, Patterson expressed hope that the next meeting would be the last, but would not rule out more if needed.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal