EDITORIAL: Bold restructuring

Gov. Haley Barbour’s 2011 executive budget proposal would dramatically change the higher education and public school landscapes in Mississippi, if approved, and some of his restructuring proposals should be given thorough consideration by the Legislature.
Barbour’s executive budget proposal, as he previously warned, anticipates huge revenue shortfalls during the next two budget cycles – about $1.9 billion – which he would partially offset with 12 percent budget cuts in 2011 for most agencies and departments, slightly lower percentage cuts for K-12 education, and a dramatic shift in funding responsibility for basic, essential programs to individual school districts’ local taxpayer-funded reserve accounts.
He makes other unprecedented proposals, all certain to be met with controversy:
- Consideration of reducing the number of community colleges (and possibly eliminating their athletic programs).
- Merging Mississippi State University and Mississippi University for Women, but retaining the Columbus campus occupied by MUW, without full administrative overhead in Columbus.
- Merging Mississippi Valley (Itta Bena), Alcorn State (Lorman) and Jackson State universities, but keeping the Lorman and Itta Bena campuses open, reducing administrative costs.
- Moving the Mississippi School for the Arts from Brookhaven to the MUW campus, which houses the Mississippi School for Math and Science (both are high schools).
- “Eliminating or consolidating” programs not pulling their weight at the University of Mississippi, Delta State and Southern Mississippi.
Barbour estimates a $35 million savings in fiscal year 2012 if the mergers are approved for the 2011 budget.
Mississippi’s adequately supporting eight universities was a stretch even in the best economic times. The three smaller universities targeted for merger arguably can be stronger campuses under a different academic/administrative structure.
It’s doubtful that substantially shifting the financial burden for basic education to local districts – while cutting the Mississippi Adequate Education Program – can be accomplished without also shifting a higher tax burden to local districts and local taxpayers. That only shifts rather than solves the problem.
At the same time, serious consideration should be given to school-district consolidation plans that would reduce from 152 to 100 the number of districts statewide. We would go further. Consider merging districts of all kinds for administrative saving and other economies of scale, plus the potential for strengthening academic offerings.
Noting happens without legislative assent, and minds should be open to possibilities.

NEMS Daily Journal