Barbour, Patterson tout consolidation's benefits

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Both Gov. Haley Barbour and the chairman of a commission he formed to study school district consolidation say the effort will not only save money but improve education.
“From the reading I have done … there is an enormous opportunity not just for financial savings … but a great opportunity to find the optimum structure to enhance the quality of our schools,” said Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, who was tabbed by Barbour to lead his Commission on Mississippi Education Structure.
At its first meeting Monday, Barbour told the group that when he became governor in 2004 “it was clear to me having 152 school districts in a state our size did not make any sense.”
Barbour has proposed merging the 152 school districts into 100 for the 2011-12 school year, but said the commission is not bound by his suggestions.
During Monday’s meeting, commission members asked several of the same questions that have been broached by those who have questioned Barbour’s proposal.
For instance, what would happen when districts have differing governing structures, such as some with appointed leaders and some with elected officials and some with the combination of the two? And how would the local taxing rate be decided upon when districts merge?
Patterson said those were legitimate concerns, but have been dealt with successfully in other states.
The commission, at the suggestion of the governor’s office, hired Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to gather data on school district consolidation. The education consulting group, which has worked on consolidation efforts in other states, also has experience in Mississippi.
In the 1990s, it helped develop the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is the formula used by the state to fund local school districts, and in the 2000s led an effort to make changes to the formula.
At that time, Augenblick, Palaich found that, on average, Mississippi school districts were about the same size as systems on a national level and that Mississippi had a lower percentage of small districts.
But the group also found that compared to districts with more than 2,000 students, spending on administrative costs was twice as much in the three districts with fewer than 500 students, and spending on administrative costs was a little more in districts with 2,000 or fewer students.
At question, though, is Barbour’s claim that $65 million in annual savings can be achieved by consolidation.
Augenblick is being paid $70,000 for its work. They money will come from private sources, including the Barksdale Reading Institute.
The commission’s report is due by April 1, though Barbour said he would understand if a little more time is needed to deal with the complex issue.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.