Article Comment 

School leaders: Merger not on the agenda

 

Jason Browne

 

An independent consulting firm says the Aberdeen and Oktibbeha County School Districts would do well to merge with Amory and Starkville schools, respectively. But as the schools focus on closing out the year, such speculative recommendations aren''t on the radar. 

 

"It''s not something we''re putting a lot of attention toward," said Starkville Schools Superintendent Judy Couey. 

 

"We''re not going to let the commission''s report distract us right now," said Amory School District Superintendent Gerald Loden. 

 

"We are busy about business. We are moving forward, preparing and educating students," read a statement from Oktibbeha County School District Superintendent James Covington. 

 

"We look at (the recommendation) more like a distraction. We''re going to focus on making Aberdeen School District the best it can be," said Aberdeen School District Superintendent Chester Leigh. 

 

A report was delivered Monday by the Devner-based consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc., to a state commission studying school district consolidation. It recommended 18 "target districts," including Aberdeen and Oktibbeha, merge with 15 "receiving districts," including Amory and Starkville.  

 

None of the local school districts identified in the study are ignoring the recommendations, but all acknowledge the consultants'' suggestions are just a starting point to address consolidation. 

 

"When the state gets serious about consolidation they will have a lot of variables to look at," said Loden. 

 

The consultant study based its recommendations for target on three criteria: The size of the district, state accountability results and average administrative cost. 

 

Receiving districts were based on proximity to target districts, consultant John Augenblick noted. 

 

The criteria must be viewed in context, said Leigh. 

 

"This is my first year (as superintendent) and we''ve been making changes and have put plans in place for the next school year. We will change some of the numbers reviewed," he said. "For instance, we''ve made some changes to restructure administrative costs." 

 

 

 

Logistics 

 

Logistical costs such as transportation were excluded by the consulting firm, which estimated merging districts would save $12 million after an initial rise in costs. 

 

"Oktibbeha County schools surround us and are pretty spread out," said Couey. "It would cost us a good bit more in fuel, maintenance and drivers." 

 

The economic impact of schools on their respective communities was also neglected, Couey said. Couey believes consolidation of two districts cannot happen without some schools closing, costing jobs at the school and sales to local vendors. 

 

 

 

Shared services 

 

However, she said, some administrative costs can be shared among districts without merging. Members of the consolidation commission made similar statements Monday, saying multiple districts in one county could share the purchasing of food, utilities and supplies, split Title I funds and share curriculum coordinators. 

 

All school districts already purchase supplies at state-negotiated prices, Loden noted. What hasn''t been discussed in the consolidation talk, he said, is all districts would have to align their millage rates and teacher supplements. 

 

Amory schools also have a deal in place for graduates to attend Itawamba Community College for free through a grant from the Gilmore Foundation. Loden doesn''t know how a merger with Aberdeen schools would effect the tuition program or impact Amory High''s graduation rate of 85.6 percent, the sixth-highest in the state. 

 

The commission did not act on the recommendations Monday but decided to seek comments from the state Department of Education and from local superintendents. The possible mergers will be discussed when the commission meets in May, members of the group said. 

 

The commission could not force mergers. Officials say any changes would have to be made by the Legislature or at the local level. 

 

Barbour said several months ago that he believes Mississippi could save money by reducing the number of school districts to 100 among the 82 counties. 

 

 

 

Consolidation at the local level 

 

Districts reaching a mutual agreement to consolidate would be forced to hold a referendum; if the majority of either district''s constituents oppose consolidation, the district''s can''t consolidate. 

 

If the consolidation is approved by voters, the districts would have to dissolve their current school boards, form another board by election or appointment and elect or appoint a superintendent. 

 

Consolidation commissioner Jim Keith said districts currently under federal desegregation court orders which chose to merge would also have to receive permission from the Justice Department to make the change.  

 

During the mid-to-late ''60s, many Southern school districts were sued for discriminatory practices and placed under federal desegregation mandates. 

 

Thus far, Columbus Municipal School District is the only school system in the area to be released from their desegregation order. U.S. District Judge Michael Mills -- the same judge Lowndes County School District faces in its petition for unitary status -- signed off on CMSD''s unitary status in August 2007. Most of the state''s school districts -- Starkville and Oktibbeha included --operate under a federal desegregation order. 

 

A work group of educators appointed by the commission will meet May 3 in Jackson to discuss a consolidation plan. The commission will reconvene May 10 to discuss the work group''s findings. 

 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Snarky commented at 4/28/2010 2:07:00 PM:

Of course it's not on their agenda. That would mean they lose their jobs. Better to keep wasting money that could be going into the classrooms and teaching the children than to lose those precious administrators.

 

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