Governor’s school merger numbers only ones available

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour admits that the savings he projects from merging universities and consolidating school districts are simply estimates.
But Barbour staff members say the estimate is a conservative one, and no other numbers have emerged to either support or refute his claims.
Barbour has proposed merging Mississippi University for Women in Columbus with nearby Mississippi State. And he has recommended merging the three historically black universities – Alcorn in Lorman, Mississippi Valley in Itta Bena and Jackson State – under the JSU umbrella.
At the kindergarten through 12th grade level, Barbour has proposed reducing the number of school districts from 152 to 100.
The governor has estimated that the school district consolidation will save $65 million annually while the university merger will produce $19.9 million in savings.
He originally said in announcing his budget that the university mergers would save $35 million annually, but staff members said Friday that number was a typo.
Thus far, Barbour’s projections for the mergers and consolidations are the only numbers available.
“The Department of Education has not done a study on the consolidation of school districts that would tell us the amount of money that would potentially be saved,” said Pete Smith, a spokesman for the department.
Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, said, “I am not certain how the governor’s staff derived at their numbers,” adding that the state College Board has been focused on making cuts at the eight universities.
The issue of university consolidation came to the forefront early last week when Barbour produced his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which the Legislature will consider during the 2010 session beginning in January.
The proposal contained far-reaching recommendations, with perhaps school consolidation and university mergers being the most dramatic.
He said he was forced to propose the “dramatic” restructuring because of the slowdown in state tax collections, which is unprecedented in recent history.
The school district consolidation and university mergers – should they become law – would not affect the budget for two years.
Barbour and others have said the state’s fiscal problems will be even worse then – with a shortfall of more than $1 billion – because of the loss of federal stimulus funds that are plugging budget holes this year and next year.
According to information provided by Buddy Bynum, the governor’s communications director, it is estimated that state can save 35 percent of total state support of the universities that are merged.
These savings, the information said, result from reduced administrative costs, personnel realignment, streamlined purchasing, and rationalization of programs and degrees at each facility, among other efficiencies that result from consolidation.
According to Bynum’s material, combining ASU and MVSU with JSU will result in savings of $14.75 million. Combining MUW with MSU will result in savings of $5.15 million. Collectively, this results in a total savings of $19.9 million.
While the issue has been dormant for years, Bynum pointed out that there have been other proposals to merge universities. Among them was a 1980s study by the college board that recommended merging MUW with Mississippi State and closing or merging Mississippi Valley.
The projected savings in that study were similar to Barbour’s estimate, Bynum pointed out. That proposal was rejected by legislators.

Classroom costs
At the K-12 level, Bynum’s information said, “With 152 school districts – including some districts with less than 400 students – we know that administrative costs are bloated, thus resulting in less dollars for the classroom.”
The governor “recommends elimination of nearly a third of these districts (52), which is a reduction of 34 percent of total districts. The governor’s budget is based on a more conservative estimate of saving $65 million, which is less than 20 percent of total administrative costs ($393 million in FY 2010).”
Barbour plans to create a commission in December to study school district consolidation.
Under Barbour’s plan, he and the Legislature would let the state Board of Education decide which districts to consolidate.
Barbour said he would intend that the highest performing districts survive while the poorest performing districts be absorbed.
House Education Committee Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said, “The governor has no scientific basis for his numbers. I wouldn’t argue they were wrong, I don’t know.”
But Brown said that under current law, the state would save no money by consolidating districts. He pointed out that under the Adequate Education Formula, the state provides an amount of money per student.
“We provide the districts a lump sum. We don’t tell them how to spend it,” Brown said, explaining any savings would go back to the districts.

All about savings
In recent months, consolidation has been studied by a task force created by the Legislature to make recommendations on improving under-performing school districts.
Tom Burnham, who will take over as superintendent of education in January, has said that school district consolidation should “be on the table” as part of the conversation about improving low-performing districts.
But thus far, that task force, which includes legislators, educators and business people, has not been able to ascertain information that indicated significant savings from consolidation. Past research also indicated that the average size of Mississippi school districts is in line with the national average.
Still, in these tough budget times, Barbour said the state should look for ways to save money. Plus, he said, restructuring would lead to the delivery of more efficient services to the taxpayers.
“Consolidating school districts will reduce administration costs in the short term, will ultimately match effective teachers with ‘right-sized’ classes, and will push more money into the classroom, improving education achievement by our K-12 students.”
The problem centers on deciding which districts to merge and how. State law already allows districts to merge if they want.
“If it was easy or popular, districts would be doing it,” Brown said in an earlier interview. “They already have that authority. Some have (done it), but not many.”

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

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal