BOBBY HARRISON: Consultants steer away from Barbour's bold consolidation plan

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour’s Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure is poised to release its report on the controversial topic of school district consolidation in the coming days.
Last November, as part of his budget proposal, the Republican governor recommended reducing the number of school districts by one-third. He reasoned that by consolidating 152 school districts into 100 the state could save about $65 million during the current dire budget times.
If Barbour’s commission follows the recommendations of its consultants, its report will not be nearly as bold as the governor’s proposal. The consultants, Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates – hired on the recommendation of the governor’s office – proposed consolidating 21 school districts, including three agricultural high schools, with other districts.
The consultants said the cost savings to the state would be minimal, if any. In the short run, there would be additional costs to an already cash-strapped state.
The consultants did say there would be some savings in local district funds.
The real benefit of consolidation, the consultants reasoned, would be more opportunities for students in districts currently so small that academic offerings are compromised.
The consultants essentially said no benefits – as far as cost savings or academic achievement – would be realized by the consolidation of as many districts as proposed by the governor.
It will be interesting to see the commission’s recommendation and what the governor does with it.
Barbour said at one point he would call a special session for the Legislature to take up the issue of consolidation after the commission released its report. In his latest public statements, Barbour hedged on whether he would call a special session to deal with the complex subject.
His original stated goal was to have consolidation in place for the 2011-12 school year, but that seems unlikely.
Perhaps legislation could be passed before the 2011-12 school year to put some districts on the path toward consolidation. But the chance that a large number of districts would be merged by then is remote – especially if it will cost the state money.
It would be difficult to convince legislators to find money for new programs for the 2011-12 school year in what will be another difficult budgeting process because of the lack of funds.
School district consolidation and university merger were the two eye-catching proposals in Barbour’s November budget recommendation. Those and other far-reaching proposals were made, Barbour said, to deal with the budget woes caused by a historic drop in state tax collections.
The university merger proposal fizzled during the 2010 session, though the governor said it was a small victory to see that in recent months the state College Board announced Mississippi State University and Mississippi University for Women, two schools he tapped for merger, would consolidate some of their administrative functions to save money.
Consolidating administrative functions and bulk purchasing among school districts could be one of the proposals that comes out of the commission.
While that would fall short of the governor’s original bold proposal, it still is a step in the direction of the governor’s proposal – should the Legislature address it.
Few of the governor’s controversial recommendations from those far-reaching and much ballyhooed budget proposals made it through the legislative process. A few did. One controversial proposal approved by the Legislature was his recommendation to require government employees to pick up the added cost for their retirement benefits.
Government employees – about 167,000 – on the state, local and school district levels, will have to pay an additional 2.75 percent of their paycheck or a total of 9 percent toward their pension. The governor said, and ultimately the Legislature agreed, that the added pension costs should be incurred by the employees and not the employer, which is the state’s taxpayers.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.