Key legislators still lukewarm toward district consolidation

JACKSON – Two key figures in deciding the fate of Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to consolidate school districts say they will consider the plan during the 2010 session, but give it little hope of passing.
Both House Education Committee Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, and his Senate counterpart, Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, already were studying the idea as co-chairs of a task force created to find way to improve under-performing school districts.
In his proposal released earlier this month, Barbour wants to merge the state’s 152 school districts into 100 as part of his plan to deal with a dramatic slowdown in state tax collections. He has estimated his proposal will save $65 million.
“I think we have to look at everything we can to make sure we continue to educate children the best we can,” Carmichael said recently. “I don’t think we will ever do it, but we still have to look at it.”
Said Brown, “We will continue to look at consolidation. I am not opposed to consolidation. What I am opposed to is tossing out that it will save $65 million … We should look at consolidation to improve student outcomes.”
Research conducted by the task force has indicated savings from consolidation would be minimal.
Brown cited several obstacles to consolidation.
For instance, how would the issue of developing a single taxing rate be decided if districts are consolidated, especially since some might have bond debt?
Plus, Brown asked, what would be the governing authority if districts are consolidated?
He pointed out that about half of the school districts currently have appointed school boards and appointed superintendents, while others have elected school boards and superintendents.
“What about Justice Department preclearance?” Brown asked, referring to the federal approval required for Mississippi to change election laws. “These are voting districts.”
Carmichael agreed, “You have so many issues.”
What is more likely to occur, Carmichael said, is that school districts voluntarily agree to consolidate services, such as purchasing, as a way to save funds.
“That would be easier to accomplish,” he said, “and I think it would be the biggest value for the dollar.”
Under state law, local officials already have the authority to consolidate districts if desired.
Barbour has admitted complex issues would be involved in school district consolidation, but believes they can be solved.
Barbour has said he will appoint a commission in December to study the issue. He is proposing that he and the Legislature give the state Board of Education the final authority to determine which districts would be consolidated based on recommendations from his commission.
“Some of the choices we need to make are going to be unpopular,” he said. “We must keep the end goal in sight – building a better, sustainable education system to serve this and future generations of Mississippians.”
He has said that high-performing districts should be spared from consolidation and that poor-performing districts should be consolidated.
But Brown said, “This is not something to do willy-nilly – eliminate 50 school districts.”
“If Washington, D.C., told us to consolidate school districts,” he added, “how would we feel? Why should local people feel any differently if Jackson tells them what to do?”

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal