Panel won't advise mandated consolidation

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure’s final report is not expected to include any recommended mandates on school district consolidation.
The commission, appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour, has concluded its meetings and will present its report to the governor soon, though a date isn’t yet certain.
Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, who chairs the commission, said the group – while not recommending the consolidation Barbour proposed – took “a good first step.”
He said the commission gathered important data, heard from experts and identified issues that would hinder consolidation efforts.
“I think we have moved the ball down the field,” Patterson said, “but we have not scored a touchdown.”
He added, “The bottom line is, I don’t think there is any difference of opinion among members of the commission and the general public that education will benefit from continued consolidation such as we have had in the past … We have tried to help develop a road map.”
Barbour formed the commission of educators, business leaders and legislators late last year after he proposed reducing the state’s 152 school districts by one-third as a way to save money.
He had asked the commission for a final report by early April, though he said being thorough was more important than meeting a deadline.
As the commission did its work, talk of consolidation lost steam. Consultants hired by the commission on Barbour’s advice recommended the consolidation of about 20 districts instead of the 50 proposed by the governor.
And the commission has been divided on whether to force consolidation, instead exploring incentives to entice consolidation.
The final report is expected to recommend that school districts within a county merge some administrative functions, such as the purchase of supplies.
But some commission members, such as state Superintendent Tom Burnham and Institutions of Higher Learning Commissioner Hank Bounds, said those functions also should be merged voluntarily or the issue should be studied further before putting a mandate on local school districts.
There is a question whether even the more narrow proposal to merge some functions, such as purchasing, will be dealt with by the Legislature in 2011, an election year.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who expressed concern early on about the potential roadblocks to forced consolidation, said he still believes the commission served a vital function.
“If we had not studied the issue, heard from experts and from the public, there would have been continued sniping,” Brown said. “You will still have sniping. But if we had not met, this issue would not go away. This made the process open. I am all for openness.”

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