BOBBY HARRISON: Consolidation commission probably missed its chance

JACKSON – The commission appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour to study the hot-buttom issue of school district consolidation is having difficulty agreeing on a final report.
But at this point, the Commission on Mississippi Education Structure should take its time.
What’s the reason to hurry?
After all, it is not likely the issue will be taken up during the upcoming 2011 legislative session.
Remember, 2011 is an election year. Legislators, who are going to be struggling with another difficult budget year because of historically bad tax collections, are not going to want to take up such a contentious matter during an election year.
This is the type of politically explosive issue that is dealt with during the first or second years of a term. It generally is not tackled during the fourth year leading into statewide elections.
Barbour proposed consolidating school districts in November as part of his budget plan. He said he hoped to have the consolidation in place by the 2011-12 school year.
He appointed the commission, chaired by Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, and said at the time the goal was for the panel to have a final report ready by early April. He did stress, though, that it was more important to produce a good report than to meet an artificial deadline.
But the April deadline made sense because the governor had talked of a special session to deal with the controversial issue.
Here it is slipping past mid-July and the commission is still struggling with finalizing a report. It is questionable whether the governor’s own commission can agree to recommend a mandate that school districts consolidate.
But at this point what’s the use?
It is getting too late to take up the issue in a special session this year and it is not likely it will be taken up next year.
And after next year, Barbour will be gone, presumably playing some role on the national political stage, either as a Republican kingmaker in the next round of presidential elections or as a candidate himself.
True, Gov. William Winter took up his Education Reform Act in a special session in December 1982 – just before the calendar turned to the election year of 1983. But Barbour is not nearly as engaged in this issue as Winter was in his reform effort, which included public kindergartens.
The issue of school district consolidation, no doubt, has some merit. Truth be known, the commission’s research revealed that Mississippi is close to the national average in terms of size of school districts – much more so than in terms of per pupil spending where the state is far below the national average.
Still, school district consolidation is an issue worth study and consideration. There are just far more moving parts that make a mandate to consolidate more difficult than it appears on the surface – as the governor’s own commissioners learned once it rolled up its collective sleeve and got involved.
Barbour can be credited with advancing the dialogue on an issue that should be explored. And his commission, filled with state business leaders, educators and legislators, has done a lot of good research and should be commended
But truth be known, the next governor who chooses to swim off in the deep political water of school district consolidation will want to appoint his own commission.
At this point, the current commission should look to finish its work as a resource to use for that future group that tackles the issue.
But don’t look for the 2011 Legislature to use the report as a starting point to tackle the issue during an election year.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal