OPINION: Consider consolidation only for the right reasons

JACKSON – School consolidation, an issue that has been talked about in Mississippi for decades, appears to be gaining a little traction – emphasis should be placed on “little” – going into the 2010 legislative session.
It has been identified by some as a way to save money as Gov. Haley Barbour and legislators scramble to deal with historically bad state budget problems.
A task force created by the Legislature to study how to improve under-performing school districts has decided to consider the issue to see if it should make any recommendations.
Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, speaking on behalf of Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, at a Mississippi Economic Council-sponsored meeting of the state’s business establishment last week, said consolidation of kindergarten through 12th grade school districts, as well as universities, should be on the table for discussion during the 2010 session.
Most of the focus has been on the possible consolidation of local school districts.
Through the years, various political groups have argued against additional funding for education, saying the money would go only to hire more administrators and would not benefit students.
A 2004 study of the Adequate Education Program, which provides the bulk of state funding for Mississippi school districts, found that per student the average instruction spending by the state was $2,296 compared to $598 on administration and $465 on maintenance and operation of facilities.
It is logical that if the 149 school districts and three agriculture high schools were merged into 82, matching the number of counties in Mississippi, there would be some savings.
But to try to contend that consolidation would solve the state’s budget problems would be akin to throwing a five-pound stone in the Ross Barnett Reservoir here in the Jackson metro area and saying it was going to cause flooding.
It’s just not the case.
A study several years ago by the state Department of Education said the bulk of that modest savings would be in local funds for public education.
Claiborne Barksdale, chief executive officer of the Barksdale Reading Institute, a nonprofit that works in the public schools to improve reading scores, and a member of the task force on under-performing school districts, had the most sensible response on the issue of school consolidation.
He said he always assumed there would be some savings by consolidating school districts – savings, he said, that should be plowed back into education.
But he quickly stressed that money should not be the overriding reason to consolidate. Instead, he said, student performance should be the main consideration.
If school consolidation can be identified as leading to better academic performance, that is a reason – a legitimate reason – to push consolidation.
It has long been conventional wisdom that Speaker McCoy, who previously served as House Education Committee chair, would block any consolidation efforts. It is well documented that in his home county of Prentiss there are those who are not crazy about consolidation.
Some interpreted Flaggs’ remarks to the business group as evidence that either McCoy was softening on the issue or that Flaggs was stepping off the reservation. It may be that neither of those guesses is right.
McCoy are Flaggs communicate on almost a daily basis, and are strong allies, but they are not necessarily in lock-step on every issue.
Who may be more upset with Flaggs are his fellow members of the Legislative Black Caucus. The caucus reportedly will meet this week to discuss his comments.
There are many impediments to school consolidation. During a recent meeting of the under-performing schools task force, Senate Education Committee Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian – a former county school superintendent – not House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, was the most vocal critic of school consolidation.
For school consolidation to work, a lot of problems must be solved. Like many things in Mississippi, some of those problems, though far from all, are racial in nature.
Any study should look at such issues as:
– What districts would be consolidated?
– Would any schools be closed?
– What would the governance of those districts be? Currently some districts have elected boards and superintendents and some have appointed boards and superintendents.
It is a complex issue worthy of study – not because of the state’s current budget woes, but because the state should look at every avenue to improve student performance.
It is feasible that in the short run school consolidation could cost money and thus hurt, not help, the state budget.

Contact Journal Capitol Bureau chief Bobby Harrison by e-mail at bobbyharrison@djournal.com or call him at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal