School district consolidation rife with confusing data

JACKSON – Research is mixed on the potential effects of school district consolidation, a task force is discovering in its search for ways to improve Mississippi’s under-performing school districts.
“The devil is in the details,” said interim state Superintendent John Jordan, who presented the legislatively created task force with information gleaned from the Department of Education.
Jordan pointed out that of the current 152 school districts, 34 encompass an entire county. Many have advocated reducing the number of school districts to 82 – representing the number of counties in Mississippi – as a way to reduce administrative costs and save money.
According to research conducted by the state Department of Education, there is little difference in administrative costs in the 34 single-county districts. Actually, operational costs are a slightly higher in the single-county districts than the statewide average.
But House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said those statistics might not necessarily mean that consolidation should not be considered for some of the state’s smallest districts, such as Clay, which has 149 students, or Montgomery, which has 413 students.
Brown pointed out that Bolivar County has six districts.
“Are students there limited in their opportunities?” Brown asked, referring to those in the smaller districts.
Brown and Senate Education Committee Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, who are the co-chairs of the task force, agreed that the issue needs much more study.
But with the state leaders facing historically bad budget problems, many believe an effort will be made to push consolidation during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.
Gov. Haley Barbour, who is set to release his budget proposal Monday, has promised “dramatic” restructuring, but will not say whether school district consolidation will be part of his plan.
Claiborne Barksdale of Oxford, a task force member and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Barksdale Reading Institute, cited a study by Syracuse University that showed consolidation in New York state in the 1980s and 1990s saved between 8 and 22 percent in districts of less than 1,500 students.
But, the study said, it was not cost effective in districts above 1,500, and consolidation could cost the state upfront money to enact.
The data on student achievement is even more mixed than the research on savings. Jordan pointed out that the 30-single county districts do not exceed the statewide average on student achievement tests.
Johnny Franklin, a member of the task force and the governor’s education adviser, said the issue should be examined more in depth to determine whether consolidation could spur student achievement.
“The only thing that matters to me is improving the achievement of children,” Franklin said.
Tom Burnham, the incoming state superintendent of education, said he believes student achievement is improved by a strong administrative and instructional team and “time on task” for students with good teachers.
But he did not rule out consolidation. Everything, he said, must be considered to improve Mississippi’s historically poor performing schools.
“Consolidation has to be on the table on a case-by-case basis and a region-by-region basis,” Burnham said.
Brown pointed out several roadblocks to consolidation, such as districts not wanting to merge with each other for a number of reasons.
“If it was easy or popular, districts would be doing it,” he said. “They already have that authority. Some have, but not many.”
Jordan pointed out a way to save money that might be less politically unpopular would be to stress school districts merging to make purchases. Buying in bulk might be an opportunity for significant savings, several task force members said.

Costs and student achievement in single-county school districts
Category Single-county districts averages statewide average
Operational expenses $26.6 billion $26.5 million
Administrative/business expenses $1.2 million $1.1 million
Administrative/business expenses as percent of total 4.3 4.3
Student achievement 147 149*

*Under the new achievement model, below 100 represents a failing school and above 166 is deemed as successful.
Source: State Department of Education

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal