UPDATE: Consultants to study Miss. school district mergers

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — The same national consulting firm that helped develop Mississippi’s education funding formula will crunch numbers for the state as officials decide which school districts are best suited for merger.

A commission appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour met Monday and voted to spend about $72,000 in private funds to hire the Denver-based firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc.

The firm helped lawmakers develop the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the complex funding plan was put into law in the late 1990s. The formula is designed to ensure that each school district receives enough money to meet midlevel academic standards.

Barbour said when he unveiled his budget in November that Mississippi should go from 152 school districts to 100 to save money as state revenues are running short.

In December, he appointed a 19-member commission of business people, legislators and education experts to study consolidation. He met with the group Monday at the Capitol and said he wants their recommendations by early April, with the goal that some districts would be combined beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

The commission itself cannot mandate that districts consolidate. Those decisions would have to be made by the state Board of Education and the Legislature.

Barbour estimated consolidation could save about $65 million a year in the more than $4 billion public education budget.

“Done right, we will not only save money, we will improve education,” Barbour said Monday.

Commissioners said they see several challenges as they explore ways to combine districts. Some neighboring districts, for example, have widely different property tax rates to support the schools. There are also questions about community loyalty to schools and about whether the U.S. Justice Department would approve mergers. The department monitors changes to ensure that minorities are treated fairly.

“Our communities have got to buy into the school system,” said Jim Keith, an education attorney who serves on the governor’s commission.

Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said some school districts have predicted that state budget cuts this year and expected cuts next year could cause layoffs of teachers. He said administrative costs should be reduced before teachers are let go.

“If one classroom teacher loses her job in a county that has multiple districts, then we have clearly defined our priority in public education in Mississippi,” Frierson said.