By NEMS Daily Journal
Governor Barbour’s Commission on Mississippi Education Structure – better known as the consolidation committee – has chosen careful deliberation over meeting suggested or imposed deadlines, a sober approach necessary to efficiently decide how and when districts should be consolidated for long-term strength.
No matter how long the commission studies the issue – broached by Barbour with a proposal to reduce school districts statewide from 152 to 100 – controversy almost certainly awaits the final recommendations, in both the Legislature and in potentially affected districts.
A consultant’s criteria for consolidation, which would be adopted under suggestions presented this week by a “working group” within the commission, would require consolidation in districts of fewer than 2,000 students falling below a specified percentage below average on accreditation standards and which spend a specified percentage above the average on administrative costs. Under that criteria, Aberdeen, Okolona and Oktibbeha county districts would be merged with other, stronger districts.
The state Board of Education has authority to merge failing districts under conservatorship with more successful districts but it cannot force the more successful district to accept the decision. It seems logical to eliminate that roadblock by giving the state board of trustees authority to fully merge districts.
Some of the overt political risks would be removed from the process if trustees, whose responsibilities are focused fully on public school quality and success, were given full consolidation authority, especially with financial incentives discussed for higher-performing districts involved in mergers.
Left to the Legislature, consolidation issues could drag on for years, depending on the influence of representatives and senators representing some districts.
Despite the political risks, the potential benefit in increasing academic strength and pulling schools out of failure and into success is worth the effort and continuing study, even if lengthy.
Higher proportions of successful students in every district would be more valuable long-term to Mississippi’s economy than any arguably marginal savings realized in consolidation.
Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds – a former state superintendent who is overseeing major reductions and efficiencies in Mississippi’s eight universities – suggested that better savings and higher achievement could be realized by merging schools at the high school and middle school level. It merits serious and comprehensive examination.
The commission, and other pro-education groups, are pushing Mississippi from a 20th century to a 21st century education model, and that’s necessary for success.