Questions linger on school consolidation study

JACKSON – How specific a governor’s commission will be in recommending the consolidation of school districts remains a mystery.
On Tuesday, a working group of the Commission on Mississippi Education Structure discussed a set of draft recommendations.
State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham, who presided over Tuesday’s meeting, said the refined draft recommendations will go back to the full commission chaired by Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson.
Patterson has said he would receive input from other members before deciding whether to call another meeting of the full group or to accept the draft recommendations as the commission’s final report.
Regardless of the commission’s decision, though, “I think we all recognize this is going to be decided through the legislative process,” Burnham said.
At this point, the draft recommendations leave a lot of unanswered questions.
For instance, it is not clear whether the commission will recommend that certain districts, based on size, administrative costs and academic performance, be consolidated or whether the state Board of Education be given the authority to mandate that successful districts accept consolidation with poor-performing districts.
The commission also has talked about providing incentives to entice districts to consolidate. But whether those incentives will include financial enticements, technical assistance or the exemption from certain accountability standards, or some combination, also is undecided.
Gov. Haley Barbour formed the commission, which includes educators, legislators and business leaders, to look at school district consolidation as a way to save money.
Despite the unanswered questions, it’s clear that whatever the commission recommends will be less far-reaching than the governor’s proposal of consolidating 152 school districts into 100.
A consultant hired by the commission, upon a recommendation of the governor’s staff, essentially downplayed the positive impact of a consolidation proposal as bold as the governor’s.
The consultant recommended that 21 school districts, including three agriculture high schools, be merged with other systems.
Barbour estimated a savings of $65 million annually with his plan. Burnham predicted the savings would come in two to three years, but not in the first year of consolidation.
Plus, Burnham said the savings would be in local funds, not state funds.
“The average taxpayer doesn’t care if the savings are in state dollars or local dollars,” Burnham said. “It is the same dollars coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets.”
Perhaps the biggest question still to be answered by the commission is whether it will recommend that the state Board of Education be given the authority to force a successful school district to consolidate with a poor-performing district.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Johnny Franklin, the governor’s education adviser, said he supports providing incentives to entice the successful district to consolidate, but said the state board “needs the tool” of being able to mandate the merger.
Burnham said that if the successful district is resentful of the mandate, “We might end up with one larger failing district.”
Franklin said he understands the issues are complex, but said, “My concern is the children and they’re suffering (academically) because a group of adults does not want to do something.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal