EDITORIAL: Consolidation

By NEMS Daily Journal

Gov. Barbour’s special Commission on Education Structure, whose recommendations and findings haven’t been presented, has veered away from the governor’s proposal of merging 50 districts (of the 152 statewide) and, as a byproduct of its work, its own consultant says the savings envisioned by Barbour’s original proposal won’t immediately become possible.
However, in the broader and longer view, the commission’s work seems likely to arrive at recommendations that could strengthen the process by which struggling and failing Mississippi school districts receive transformative assistance for the long term.
The commission, led by Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, was formed because Barbour proposed reducing Mississippi’s school districts from 152 to 100 as a way of saving money in the face of financial shortfalls unprecedented since the Great Depression of the 1930s. He said $65 million in savings could be realized within a year of consolidation’s implementation.
The consultant and other experts say no. In fact, additional funds would be required as incentives for strong districts to consolidate with weak and failing districts, a reasonable conclusion given an expected recoil by strong institutions at the prospect of risking weakness in merging with struggling peers.
An unarticulated question must come into play: If strong districts receive financial incentives to merge with weak districts where will the incentive funding come from? Will Peter be robbed to pay Paul? Will other school districts lose some funding to merger of other districts? The state’s financial situation requires asking the questions, and receiving full answers.
The expense-reduction assumptions were among the first casualties of the commission’s work because its own independent consultant found that consolidation would actually require more spending initially and that savings would be long term and possibly more modest than hoped.
Discussions have led so far to consideration of other issues, too, which is a good airing of views about consolidation beyond its status as a rhetorical tool frequently used by politicians at many levels.
Consolidation should be proposed, as the governor noted in his charge to the commission, under a scenario that achieves the best comprehensive improvements, including strengthened learning and teaching, not just achieving savings.
Patterson, who also is a trustee of the state Institutions of Higher Learning and chairman of BancorpSouth, the state’s largest financial institution, said the commission knows any recommendations will require legislative approval.
Partial success often leads to larger success in the long term.
If the commission – in consultation and collaboration with the Mississippi Board of Education – agrees on a prioritized agenda and joins forces, the probability of success improves.