By NEMS Daily Journal
Because public education is so important, it’s the subject of constant critiques, analyses and often-passionately held ideas about how it can be made better.
Efficient delivery of educational services – anywhere, but especially in a state like Mississippi with limited resources – is always a paramount concern. That’s why consolidation of schools and school districts has been an on-again, off-again topic on the state radar for more than half a century now.
The first big wave of consolidation in Mississippi in the 1950s eliminated hundreds of small rural schools and dramatically reduced the number of school districts. It also improved the educational opportunities of many Mississippi children by putting them in schools with more to offer.
No similar far-reaching action has occurred since, but there have been recurrent political debates about consolidation. The politics of it usually carries the day, and politics makes it very difficult to consolidate schools or school districts.
Yet where there is an educational purpose to be served, consolidation should be considered. And the educational purpose may be as simple as funneling more money into academic programs instead of into duplicative administrative and support service structures.
There are some ludicrous administrative arrangements in Mississippi’s public schools, and this year the Legislature tackled the one most often mentioned through the years – seven school districts in one largely rural Delta county, Bolivar, which has less than half the population of Lee County with its two districts. Lawmakers consolidated those seven districts into three – still an unnecessary number – and in neighboring Sunflower County reduced the number of districts from three to one. This may not seem like much, but it’s the most consolidation that’s been done in years.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour in his second term appointed a special commission that recommended incentives for districts to voluntarily consolidate. No one, however, seems willing to force the issue on a widespread basis. The politics of job and turf protection cloud the issue, along with general resistance to change, not only among educators but the public at large.
Proponents of consolidation sometimes overstate the potential savings, but there’s no question that there are efficiencies to be had in reducing administrative overhead and consolidating non-academic necessities such as transportation and food services. But the primary question to be asked about consolidation is whether it will improve education for children.
In many instances, the answer to that question would be yes – perhaps not dramatically, but definitively. That’s why the consolidation discussion, while not the most important educational issue and certainly not a panacea, should remain on the table.