EDITORIAL: Consolidation issues

School consolidation advances and retreats in Mississippi as a high-profile issue, an occasional but persistent consideration of the advantages of combining some districts and eliminating some schools.
This year, a special legislative task force assigned to study and recommended action on academically underperforming school districts has added study of consolidation to its agenda, even as some members express questions about its effectiveness and its achievability.
The first round of Mississippi school district consolidation, implemented with the shadow of desegregation looming over all public education actions in the state and woeful under-financing in many districts, inarguably achieved quantifiable improvements in facilities, academic strength, and financial sustainability.
Mississippi had more than 2,000 school districts before the first mandated consolidation in the early 1950s, and many were districts for black children on paper only, having no buildings, no teachers and no students. Mississippi today has 152 districts, and some leaders would like to see 82, one for each county, or fewer.
The nationwide movement toward consolidation began in 1918. National measurements show that from 1945 to 1980 the number of schools dropped from 185,000 to under 86,000. During the 1970s the number of schools in the country declined 5 percent.
Some of the Mississippi consolidation decisions of the 1950s (in a segregated system) and later ones in the 1960s caused painful and prolonged factionalism between loyalists of many schools, especially in rural communities, where the schools, and their athletic teams, were the strongest unifying influence and identity.
Some of Mississippi’s most successful districts in 2009 are products of earlier consolidations, but success isn’t guaranteed.
We support the consolidation study, and we believe some financial advantages could be realized in a countywide single district structure: unitary equipment, food, instructional material, and other contract bid purchases.
In general, we believe larger school districts with ample resources can offer a greater diversity of courses, including advanced courses arguably necessary for the best college and work force preparation.
Any new mandate for consolidation requires a strong rationale for academic improvement. Define the goals and expectations in parallel with recommendations, if any.
Efforts to sustain adequate funding become more difficult with every budget cut.
The task force obviously understands the difficulties and political risks, and adequately performing schools for the students involved is the sole issue on which to make recommendations. Community success follows successful schools.

NEMS Daily Journal