OPINION: Barbour, long silent, raises consolidation late in his tenure

By Bobby Harrison

During the recent kickoff meeting of a commission formed by Gov. Haley Barbour to study his school district consolidation proposal, he said when he first took office in 2004, “I was candidly surprised that there was no appetite for consolidation in the Legislature.”
He went on to add, “… it was absolutely clear to me having 152 school districts in a state our size did not make any sense.”
It might have been clear to Barbour, but he did not make that clarity known to the general public until November 2009 when he made the proposal to consolidate the 152 school districts into 100.
The governor did not run on the issue in 2003 or in 2007. Neither time was school district consolidation part of his education proposals.
During the 2005 legislative session, Barbour introduced the UpGrade Education Reform Act, which he identified at the time as his signature proposal to improve education. It did not include any provisions concerning school district consolidation.
At some point in time at some civic club or during some interview, Barbour might have expressed support for school district consolidation. But until November, it was never high on his public agenda.
With a multi-million dollar campaign budget that dwarfs all competition and with superior communication skills, Barbour has the ability to get his message to the public. School district consolidation was never part of that message.
Now there are some very real and legitimate reasons to talk about school district consolidation.
A real case can be made for consolidation.
Whether it will save as much money as Barbour claims is a point that can be debated. Hopefully, his study commission, chaired by Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson and with the help of nationally respected education consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates of Denver, the questions about savings, as well as other questions, will be answered.
Will consolidation lead to more opportunities for learning?
If so, that is a good reason to consolidate. The question then is which districts to consolidate and how?
There has been a lot of talk about consolidation in past years.
But the story goes that politicians always are afraid to tackle the proposal because it is so controversial.
Barbour told the story of Joe Blount, a former Newton County legislator, who was defeated after leading a consolidation effort in his community. Blount was later appointed Tax Commission chair by Barbour.
School district consolidation on the scale proposed by Barbour could be one of the most significant legislative feats of recent time. Not always, but normally politicians campaign on such proposals.
Ronnie Musgrove campaigned on a multi-year raise to move teacher pay to the Southeastern average. He accomplished the massive pay raise, but it fell short of the Southeastern average.
William Winter campaigned on public kindergartens. He accomplished that.
Barbour campaigned on providing businesses more lawsuit protection. He also was successful.
In the area of education, Barbour campaigned on a number of issues of varying degrees of importance, including seeing to completion the pay raise Musgrove convinced the Legislature to pass.
During his second run for the Governor’s Mansion, Barbour campaigned on fully funding “100 percent every year” the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of most of the basics of operating local school districts. That has not worked out so well thus far.
Now with two years left in his second and final term, the governor is advocating school district consolidation.
That may be a good thing. School district consolidation may be what is needed in a state that has consistently been near the bottom in both education achievement and funding.
But tackling school district consolidation is a lot scarier proposition for legislators who plan to run again in 2011.
After all, the governor said “it was absolutely clear” to him in 2004 that districts needed to be consolidated. But he never got around to dealing with it – to making it part of his agenda – until he was on the tail end of his tenure as governor.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.