Task force to take on hot-button consolidation issue

JACKSON – A task force formed by the Legislature to improve underperforming schools has decided to take on the touchy subject of school district consolidation.
During a recent hearing of the task force, the story was told of an agency in the 1980s that had advocated Mississippi’s 152 school districts be consolidated into 82, basically along county lines. The task force was told, perhaps jokingly, that the agency was eliminated by the Legislature the next session.
Senate Education Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, the co-chair of the task force, responded, also perhaps jokingly, “I think I might disappear if consolidation happened in some of my school districts.”
For years, an array of groups has touted the virtue of school consolidation as a way to save money and increase efficiency in the public schools. The only problem has been finding agreement on how to do it.
“It’s been my observation everybody wants to consolidate everybody else’s district, but not their own,” said House Education Committee Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, the other co-chair of the task force.
Last year, the task force, working with the state Board of Education, developed and passed into law the Children First Act, which created the Recovery School District to take over chronically low performing school districts.
The Children First Act, highly praised in the business community, is in the midst of being enacted.
In the meantime, the task force continues to study low-performing schools and is developing a subcommittee to look at consolidation. Interim state Superintendent John Jordan is supposed to develop statistics and look for independent experts who have done research on consolidation.
But the issue of school consolidation is not new. It has been debated and studied in the past.
In 2005, the matter was taken up by a task force formed to look at possible changes to the Adequate Education Program, which provides the basics of operating local school districts.
Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based education consulting firm, developed information for the task force revealing “the average size district in Mississippi is virtually the same as in the United States.”
According to the report, the average district in Mississippi has an enrollment of 3,238 students compared to 3,297 nationally.
The study determined “there is no relationship between district size and per pupil spending for instruction.” But it also said “there is a relationship between district size and per pupil spending for administration,” thus seeming to support those saying that money could be saved via consolidation.
Based on the 2005 study, the 13 school districts with an enrollment between 500 and 1,000 students, for instance, spend $704 per student on administration compared to $549 for the 23 school districts with enrollment between 4,000 and 10,000 students.
But the 12 districts in state with an enrollment of between 3,000 and 3,500 students, which constitute an average enrollment both in Mississippi and nationally, spend $534 per student – $15 per student less than the much larger districts.
Jordan said much of the talk about school consolidation is fueled by opponents of public education whom he said mistakenly believe administrators are overpaid and underworked.
“We have to do what is best for kids and the achievement of kids and get that other stuff out of it,” he said.
Jordan said he believes the benefits of consolidation would be minimal at best, but would be willing to look at anything.
Referring to student performance, he said, “I am dadgum tired of what we have right now.”
Task force member Claiborne Barksdale, chief executive officer of the Barksdale Reading Institute, a non-profit that works in the public schools to improve reading scores, said, “Money is an issue (in school consolidation.) It is not the driving issue. We would expect some savings that I hope would be put back into education.”
A benefit of consolidation, several member said, would be the need for fewer education leaders throughout the state.
The state currently has a shortage of quality superintendents and other key administrators, the committee has found. With fewer school districts, that problem might be alleviated.

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

Spending on administration
Based on 2005 study
Size No. of districts Per pupil spending on administration
Less than 500 3 $1,124
500-1,000 13 $707
1,000-1,500 23 $644
1,500-2,000 30 $595
2,000-2,500 15 $555
2,500-3,000 18 $550
3000-3,500 12 $534
3,500-4,000 8 $481
4,000-10,000 23 $549
More than 10,000 4 $554

Source: Augenblick, Palaich and Associates

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal