EDITORIAL: Consolidation talks

By NEMS Daily Journal

Commission faces complex issues before a final report
Gov. Barbour’s Commission on Educational Structure delayed on Monday adoption of a final report and recommendations about school district consolidation for the simplest and most direct of reasons: Members haven’t found the common ground necessary to agree.
Aubrey Patterson, the Tupelo bank chairman named by Barbour to lead the special commission, had hoped for a decision, but he delayed that vote at least until the next commission meeting, which has not been set.
The commission was formed in December and originally had a hoped-for April completion. Barbour, however, did not set a hard and fast deadline. Eighteen months remain in the governor’s second and final term.
Gov. Barbour formed the commission and set its course in the context of a generally acknowledged state budget crisis. The governor said he wanted to reduce the number of Mississippi school districts from 152 to 100 because he believed it eventually – but not immediately – would lead to substantial savings in administrative and other costs.
The ably staffed commission hired a Colorado consulting firm, using private funds, to assess the situation and make recommendations. The firm concluded that 18 districts, based on a combination of academic strengths and weaknesses paired with financial strengths and weaknesses, would be the best candidates for consolidation.
Those districts included Okolona with Houston or Chickasaw County, Amory with Aberdeen, and Starkville with Oktibbeha County, but many of the proposed consolidations would be in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, where many schools struggle.
The issues with which the commission grapples are as old as the idea of consolidation: politics in terms of constituent response to consolidation proposals or mandates, criteria and legislative receptiveness.
Nothing is easy about consolidation and nothing is simple, either.
State Board of Education Trustee Claude Hartley of Tupelo said the bottom line of school consolidation must be “what’s good for the boys and girls.”
Hartley said that’s inclusive of financial and academic improvement, strong administrative leadership, exceptional teaching – all leading to higher achievement, which would encourage every student and lead to meeting many other long-term goals for our state.
We agree.
Consolidation presents the potential for many benefits, but realistically it probably requires a multi-year process involving work with the Legislature, communities in districts proposed for consolidation, local boards of trustees, always the state Board of Education – and enhanced financial support for the transition.
We hope the commission takes as much time as necessary in devising meaningful recommendations that have a chance of enactment, an issue that may be problematic given the approach of statewide elections, including all legislative seats, in 2011.