Senate rejects forcing school district mergers

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Senators don’t want the state Board of Education to make good school districts merge with those not faring as well.

The chamber passed a bill 37-12 Thursday that allows the state Board of Education to abolish or forcibly merge districts the state takes over a second time. But senators say they only want the state to merge districts if a better-off receiving district agrees.

Also Thursday, House members approved a measure letting students transfer from districts that lose accreditation. They also agreed to require a change from elected to appointed superintendents in districts the state takes over.

A series of bills requested by the Department of Education aims to reform the state takeover process. The state has struggled to improve districts, and state Superintendent Tom Burnham wants changes. He has said that a particular concern is that a state takes a district into conservatorship and improves finances or academics, only to see a district slide back into bad patterns when the state returns the district to local control. The state has taken over the North Panola district twice, and Burnham said other repeat takeovers are likely on the horizon.

“They don’t want to be in the business of running schools,” Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said of the state. “If they’ve been taken over one time, that’s bad. A second time … enough is enough.”

The bill allows the state to depose school board members and order new elections in districts that are taken over twice within 10 years. It originally also allowed the state to merge a twice-failed district into a neighboring district without the consent of the neighboring district. But Sen. Hob Bryan, R-Amory, successfully amended the bill to require the consent of the receiving district.

“If the local school district is doing a good job of educating students, basically they should be left alone,” Bryan said.

The Senate has already passed a bill ordering the merger of Sunflower County’s three districts, all of which are troubled, into one district. The Senate also passed a bill ordering the state to merge Bolivar County’s six districts into three or fewer, on efficiency grounds.

Tollison fought the amendment, saying that without the power to make good districts combine with troubled neighbors, the state would be deprived of leverage needed to force reforms. Only an involved community can permanently improve a district, he said.

“Everybody says ‘not in my backyard,’ but it is in your county,” Tollison said.

The amendment’s adoption dealt a rare defeat to Senate Republicans leaders, who have generally gotten their way so far in this session. A total of seven Republicans broke ranks: Sally Doty of Brookhaven, Angela Burks Hill of Picayune, Gary Jackson of French Camp, John Polk of Hattiesburg, Tony Smith of Picayune, Sean Tindell of Gulfport and Michael Watson of Pascagoula. By contrast, only Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, voted to allow forced mergers.

The bill goes to the House, which passed a bill Thursday with language along the lines originally sought by the state. That measure also would allow parents to transfer children from districts whose accreditation is revoked by the state. Local and state tax money would follow the student to a new district. Administrative changes being made by the Department of Education would also bar unaccredited districts from playing sports against other schools or taking part in other interscholastic competitions. Among districts at risk of losing their accreditation is the Jackson city district, the state’s second largest by enrollment.

Another bill passed Thursday by the House would require a change from elected to appointed superintendents in districts the state takes over, and bar and board member or superintendent from being able to serve in that office once a district returns to local control.

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Senate Bill 2737 and House Bill 1134 deal with merging failed school districts. House Bill 1207 allows transfers from unaccredited districts.