By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Consultants said Monday that 18 Mississippi school districts could improve by merging with higher performing districts, generally their neighbors.
The 18 have small enrollments, most with fewer than 2,000 pupils. Many are in low-income areas and have higher than average per-pupil administrative costs.
Several are in northern Mississippi and the cash-strapped Delta, and some have already been taken over by the state because of financial or academic performance problems.
“I’m not surprised at who the districts were and some of the reasons of probably why they were there,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, who serves on a school consolidation study commission appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour.
The 18 districts that consultants identified for possible mergers with other districts are: Aberdeen, Benoit, Coahoma County, Coffeeville, Drew, East Jasper, Hazlehurst, Hollandale, Indianola, Jefferson Davis County, Kemper County, Montgomery County, North Panola, Okolona, Oktibbeha County, Quitman, Shaw and West Tallahatchie.
In most cases, the consultants recommended a nearby district for merger. For example, they said Oktibbeha County schools could consolidate with Starkville city schools, and that West Tallahatchie could merge with East Tallahatchie.
No recommendations were made Jefferson Davis County, Kemper County or Quitman County schools, the only districts in their counties.
Consultants from a Denver-based firm — Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc. — presented their findings Monday to the school-consolidation study commission.
Mississippi has 149 districts and three agricultural high schools that act as autonomous districts. The consultants said earlier that the agriculture schools should be merged with neighboring districts.
The commission did not act on the recommendations Monday but decided to seek comments from the state Department of Education and from local superintendents. The possible mergers will be discussed when the commission meets in May, members of the group said.
The commission could not force mergers. Officials say any changes would have to be made by the Legislature or at the local level.
Barbour said several months ago that he believes Mississippi could save money by reducing the number of school districts to 100 among the 82 counties.
The consultants’ report said local expenses would probably decrease for most merged districts.
“A reduction in spending as a result of consolidation would not reduce state aid to districts, at least in the short run,” the report said, because the state funding formula is based on the number of students enrolled.
Carmichael said he believes in letting local districts take care of their own business, but some have not. He said he hopes some districts will take it upon themselves to merge without being forced by the state.
“You can’t make people care, but sometimes they don’t care because they’re not aware of what’s happening,” Carmichael said.
The governor’s commission decided in January to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to study possible mergers. In the 1990s, the firm helped develop the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex funding formula designed to ensure that each school district receives enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.
Barbour’s office said the $72,000 for the consolidation study came from the National Governors Association and privately funded Barksdale Reading Institute, based in Oxford. The governor’s office also was applying for money from the Appalachian Regional Commission.