Panel skips meeting, works on consolidation

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Finishing a report on school district consolidation is turning into a challenging task for the commission established to study the issue.
The Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure canceled a meeting planned for Monday afternoon at the state Capitol, according to a news release from the state Department of Education, which provides staff support for the panel.
No reason was given for the cancellation, but Pete Smith, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said work was ongoing on a draft report based on recommendations from the last meeting, which was held earlier this month.
Smith said that draft will be circulated via e-mail to see if most members support it.
“I don’t know if the commission will meet again,” Smith said.
“I know work is being done as quickly at it can be to finalize those revisions.”
At the last meeting, it appeared a majority of the commission objected to any language in the report mandating the consolidation of school districts, though Chair Aubrey Patterson of Tupelo never asked for an official vote on any of the proposals.
While several members voiced opposition to any forced consolidation, there seemed to be less resistance to mergers involving poorly performing districts.
The idea of offering incentives to entice districts to consolidate appeared to have support.
Those incentives could include easing the accountability standards in the merged district for a certain period of time as well as financial incentives.
The commission was established by Gov. Haley Barbour after he proposed reducing the 152 school districts in the state by one-third. He estimated that would save $65 million annually.
Consultants hired by the commission on the recommendation of Barbour’s office disputed the savings from a merger of that scale and instead recommended merging about 20 districts.
When naming the commission, the governor also expressed hope it could finish its work by early April, but said developing a credible report was more important than a timeframe on completion.
The commission is made up of business leaders, educators and legislators.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.