Consolidation still on agenda

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The 2012 Legislature did something that is often talked about but seldom done in Mississippi – consolidate school districts.
Although it was not the large, statewide consolidation effort that has been proposed by some, legislation was passed and signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant to merge three districts in Sunflower County into one and seven districts in Bolivar County into three.
Could the 2012 effort be a precursor of things to come in upcoming sessions?
“I think it is one of the issues we are going to be discussing,” said House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, whose committee originated the two consolidation bills passed in 2012, said school district consolidation will still be an issue, but that it might be better to see how the mergers proceed in Sunflower and Bolivar counties before doing more.
Elections are slated in the newly created districts in Bolivar and Sunflower counties in November 2013 to elect school board members. The new boards will hire superintendents.
The state currently has 152 school districts. Outgoing state Board of Education member Claude Hartley of Tupelo said recently that is too many.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour also said the number of Mississippi school districts should be reduced. In 2009, Barbour proposed reducing the number to about 100, saying it would save $65 million annually.
But a study commission formed by Barbour never could substantiate the amount of savings. The commission concluded savings in state funds would be limited because money is appropriated on a per-pupil basis and not on a district basis, but that there would be savings in local expenditures.
In the end, though, the study commission did not recommend any consolidation of districts. It did recommend that the Legislature provide incentives to encourage districts to merge voluntarily and merge some services, such as food services or transportation services.
Hartley said he favors consolidation not necessarily as a cost-saver, but because “it is nearly impossible to find 152 competent superintendents. If we don’t have good leadership, it is difficult to have a quality school district.”
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, an education advocacy group, said, “Our position is that consolidation should be used where necessary to improve student achievement.” In some cases, she said, small districts may struggle “to offer students a full complement of courses or sufficient resources to help them succeed.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said in a few cases of districts with less than 500 students, efforts need to be made to deal with consolidation, but he opposes “a top-down approach” that gives local people no say in the issue. He said those extremely small districts enroll less than 1 percent of the state’s public school students.
“We need to focus on high standards and good teachers instead of this eternal debate about school governance,” he said.
Under current law, school districts can merge voluntarily, though none have been willing to do so in recent years. Vicksburg and Warren County voluntarily merged their districts in the late 1980s, and an attempt by Laurel and Jones County to consolidate was blocked in the courts in the early 1990s.
The state Board of Education has the authority to force a chronically low-performing district to merge with another system, though there would be a reluctance on the part of a successful district to accept the problems of a poor-performing system.
Legislation was defeated this past session that would have allowed the state board to force a successful district to absorb a neighboring system that was chronically underperforming.
Tollison said he understands that an excelling district might not want to deal with a neighboring district that is struggling, but he said the state “has an obligation to educate all our children regardless of where they are.”
He said in the future it might be productive to consider legislation that would set criteria for consolidation, but to keep actual consolidation out of the politics of the Legislature to give the state Board of Education the authority to merge systems based on specified criteria.