John Augenblick, an education consultant from Colorado, recommended Monday to the task force that 18 school districts, plus three agriculture high schools, be merged with other schools for a cost savings in local expenditures of $12 million to $14 million per year over time.
In Northeast Mississippi, that included merging Aberdeen with Amory, Okolona with the Chickasaw or Houston districts and Oktibbeha with Starkville.
But Augenblick said that in the short term, the consolidation would cost the state additional money.
"The savings are long-term," he told the task force during a hearing at the state Capitol. "It will cost you something in the short term."
Barbour originally proposed in November reducing the 151 school districts, including three agriculture high schools, by a third as part of a plan to deal with state budget problems caused by a slowdown in tax collections.
He appointed the task force, chaired by BancorpSouth Chairman and CEO Aubrey Patterson of Tupelo, to study the issue and make recommendations to him and the Legislature.
The governor had indicated that he might call a special session this summer in hopes of enacting school district consolidation for the 2011-12 school year.
But Barbour has recently said he is not sure about the special session and any consolidation might be fully enacted at a later date.
On Monday, Augenblick, based on a set of criteria that included school district size, student academic performance and administrative costs, recommended merging 18 districts with nearby systems.
In addition to the three districts in Northeast Mississippi, others the consultant cited as ripe for merger were Benoit, Shaw, Hazlehurst, East Jasper, Jefferson Davis, Montgomery, Quitman, Drew, West Tallahatchie, Hollandale, Coffeeville, Coahoma, Kemper, North Panola and Indianola.
Patterson stressed that the suggestions from the consultant did not mean that those districts would be the ones recommended to be merged.
"They are a work product ... and our work is continuing," he said. "They are the product of a very data-driven analysis."
Augenblick was asked about making a recommendation to reach Barbour's goal of merging one-third of the districts. The governor had estimated a savings of $65 million annually.
"We were very data driven," Augenblick said.
To achieve Barbour's goal, he said, "you would be picking up places where it would not help much."
Augenblick said he believes merging the districts he cited would result in more efficiencies and would provide more courses for students in those schools.
He said other districts did not fit into the specific criteria of being small, having poor student performance and having administrative costs significantly higher than the state average.
The task force hopes to make a recommendation as soon as its May 10 meeting. But many questions were left unanswered Monday, such as whether to force consolidation or offer incentives to try to entice districts to merge.
Plus, there are questions about civil rights issues related to the federal Voting Rights Act, which the state must follow, and questions about what to do about a district's debt if two systems merge.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said there were many issues to resolve, but pointed out it could be done since other states have consolidated school districts.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.