Panel rejects forced school district mergers

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Nearly 10 months after Gov. Haley Barbour proposed a forced major consolidation of school districts, a commission he established to study the issue has released its final report, and it does not recommend any mandated mergers.
The Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure recommended in its final report to Barbour that the Legislature create incentives “for districts to voluntarily consolidate under existing law.”
Those incentives would include financial and technical assistance, as well as easing some of the accountability standards for a specified period of time.
The report, released Friday, also recommended:
– The state Board of Education be given more authority to dissolve the worst-performing districts and recreate them.
– The districts create “economies of scale” by pooling together to buy items such as buses, copy paper and janitorial supplies.
– The districts be required to consolidate certain services, such as “support services and back-office operations” countywide. This would include such items as one entity issuing payroll checks for all the districts in a county.
Some members of the commission, including state Superintendent Tom Burnham and Higher Education Commission Hank Bounds, wrote a letter objecting to the mandate to consolidate certain services countywide.
“I believe these four recommendations provide the Legislature with some excellent options for consideration,” said Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, commission chair. “The commission examined the issue from every angle and developed recommendations that address the consolidation of both school districts and services.”
Barbour proposed in November that the state’s 152 school districts be reduced by one-third. He estimated such a merger would save about $65 million. But the commission, which he appointed in December, found no evidence of such savings.
Still, Barbour lauded the commission’s report Friday.
“These common-sense solutions are a good first step toward improving the educational and financial conditions of Mississippi schools,” Barbour said. “I appreciate the months of hard work by the commission. Through innovative approaches to education, we can improve the efficiency of our districts and quality of opportunities for Mississippi children.”
The commission, which included business leaders, educators and legislators, was asked by the governor to finish its work by April, but he did say the deadline was not as important as the quality of the work.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a commission member, said he doubts the report will have much impact on the Legislature.
“I don’t, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t see school districts jumping up and down to consolidate.”
Still, he said the commission served a purpose in “letting people air this issue out and letting people have their say … I don’t think a compelling case was made for consolidation. We heard from states where consolidation was mandated with mixed results.”
Consultants hired upon the recommendation of the governor’s staff suggested a plan to the commission to merge about 20 districts. But in the end the commission did not include that plan in its report, though it did recommend the methodology used to propose the merger of those 20 districts be used to offer incentives for systems to consolidate voluntarily.
“I am for consolidation when it improves the educational outcome for the kids,” Brown said. “But it became clear it is not a money-saver. The experts told us that.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.