EDITORIAL: Barbour's panel

Gov. Haley Barbour’s high-profile commission to study public school district consolidation and other efficiency issues gets off to a strong start with experienced, knowledgeable and qualified members.
Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, who heads BancorpSouth, will chair the effort and lead committee members with diverse backgrounds:
– Veteran educator Tom Burnham, the state superintendent of education;
– Literacy advocate Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, Oxford;
– Legislative education committee chairmen, Sen. Videt Carmichael (Meridian) and Rep. Cecil Brown (Jackson);
– Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, and possibly others as work begins, with an April 1 reporting deadline.
Barbour proposed reducing the number of Mississippi districts from 152 to 100 in his executive budget message, pairing weaker districts with stronger districts to achieve efficiencies and ultimately strengthen student performance. That proposal received a cool reception in both chambers and in both parties, one of the rare occasions when legislative Republicans haven’t jumped at the chance to follow Barbour’s lead on an issue he backs.
The hesitation rises from the controversy sure to boil over when and if a bill were to get to the debate stage.
There’s potential in studying consolidation and other efficiency issues, especially by an independent panel with no partisan axes to grind. Barbour didn’t bind his commission to his views, which means their recommendations, based on the information gathered and their decisions, could range substantially afield of what Barbour proposes.
We believe substantial strength could be generated in consolidations that seek to make a fresh start and not just combine functions in the same kind of structures and procedures.
On the other hand, assumptions about inefficiencies might not be borne out in the commission’s study.
It’s helpful to remember that 152 school districts isn’t a static number.
Mississippi had about 2,000 school districts – some nothing more than a piece of paper – in the early 1950s. That number was radically reduced, in part to try to avoid desegregation and in part to raise education standards.
Mississippi needs school district structures to match 21st century challenges in the same vein that Mississippi needs new high school curriculum designs to meet the academic and career challenges of the times.
The Legislature, as a political creature, often leaps to protect turf whenever restructuring of institutions is proposed. Few things are more institutionalized than public education.
We hope the commission, as it reviews information, makes summary interim reports on what it is finding that could be improved. Substantial information about successful consolidation and efficiency experiences is available nationwide, and that should be reviewed.

Joe Rutherford