Consolidation panel to meet again, still working to develop final report

JACKSON – A committee formed by Gov. Haley Barbour to study the contentious matter of school district consolidation could finally agree on a report when it meets June 28.
When Barbour formed the Commission on Mississippi Education Structure late last year, he asked that the panel finish its work by early April, but said it was more important to develop a good report than to meet a deadline.
The commission has missed the deadline. Now it is trying to develop a report.
At the June 28 meeting at the Capitol, the commission is expected to review a draft report developed by “a working group” which includes educators, business leaders and others.
Whether the panel will vote on the draft report, change it or decide to have more meetings is not clear, said Pete Smith, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a member of the commission, said the issue of consolidation is complex with no easy answers.
“I am not satisfied with where we are,” said Brown, adding he is not sure what path to take.
A lot of questions not dealt with in the draft report still confront the commission.
For instance, it is not known whether the commission will recommend that certain districts, based on size, administrative costs and academic performance, be consolidated or whether it will recommend that the state Board of Education be given the authority to mandate that successful districts accept consolidation with poor-performing districts.
Plus, the commission has discussed offering incentives to entice districts to consolidate. But it is not clear whether those incentives would include financial enticements, technical assistance or the exemption from certain accountability standards, or some combination of those.
In November, Barbour recommended consolidating the state’s 152 school districts into 100 which would bring an estimated savings of $65 million annually.
A consultant hired by the commission upon a recommendation of the governor’s office essentially downplayed the positive impact of a consolidation proposal as bold as the governor recommended. The consultant recommended 21 school districts, including three agriculture high schools, be merged with other systems.
Senate Education Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, also on the commission, said, “I really think if consolidation happens it will be more on a voluntary basis.”
One issue that has gained traction with the commission is getting districts to merge various functions, such as purchasing, transportation or administrative duties, without full consolidation.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harirson/NEMS Daily Journal