Lawmakers weigh in on school district merger plan

January 14, 2010 10:45:00 AM

Jason Browne - jbrowne@cdispatch.com

 

State legislators continue to talk about what they''re not going to do with regard to education. 

 

While the state faces a $400 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, lawmakers are tasked with solving an even bigger financial mess for fiscal year 2011. But even after the Senate passed a resolution Wednesday giving Gov. Haley Barbour power to make another 10-percent budget cut to agencies, both houses continue to struggle to find ways to trim the state''s education budget. 

 

The latest idea to get shot down, following university mergers, is the governor''s recommendation to merge one-third of the state''s 152 school districts. Lawmakers point out no actions can be completely written off until the session is finished, but they insist support for district consolidation is negligible. 

 

"I don''t see any groundswell in the House or Senate to consolidate school districts," said Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus. "That doesn''t mean it''s not going to happen." 

 

Brown says the cold reality of the state''s budget situation could change a few votes, but there''s debate as to whether the state stands to save any money via the elimination of administrative positions that will result from district mergers. 

 

"Administrative costs, which is what you''re doing when you consolidate, are paid for by local funds, not state funds," said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus. "The financial situation the state''s in is not the driving force to do it." 

 

Chism says he''s unsure why Barbour would recommend such a drastic measure if it wouldn''t result in significant savings to the state, but Brown says consolidation may end duplication of state-funded programs among districts. 

 

Barbour''s recommendation predicted merging Mississippi''s 152 school districts into 100 would save the state $65 million. 

 

The recommendation for consolidation was originally made based on Mississippi Curriculum Test scores. Under the governor''s plan "failing" districts would be merged with "successful" districts. But some legislators feel if consolidation is to happen it should be based on population. 

 

"What I think would work better is any district a certain size, 750-1,000 students or less, should be consolidated," said Chism. "The problem you run into is some of the smaller high schools aren''t able to offer the courses some of the bigger high schools are able to offer." 

 

Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, represents two school districts, West Point and Clay County, which fall in that category. Under the population plan, Clay County schools would be absorbed into West Point schools. 

 

Turner says that option needs more exploration. 

 

"I can''t make just make that sort of judgment off the top of my head. There are some fairly successful districts that have gone through consolidation." he said. "This is not a totally new concept, but nobody forced them. It was done because the citizens in those districts decided it would be best." 

 

Under current state law, districts can merge only if a majority of citizens in both districts vote to merge. The state can take over a single failing district but cannot force a merger. 

 

With that in mind, other options include turning merger power over to the Mississippi Department of Education as new State Superintendent Tom Burnham has requested. 

 

With so many choices, most legislators feel it''s best to put off any decisions about consolidation. 

 

"I think it''s something we need to study. Looking at the study committees and each school district and their needs, I don''t think there''s one answer for all school districts. It''s too much of a complex problem," said Rep. Wilbert Jones, D-Meridian. 

 

"Whether a piece of legislation passes that calls for school consolidation ... I don''t think you''ll see that," said Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto. "I do think it will continue the conversation about how we''re presenting our product and what we''re producing and that''s always a good conversation." 

 

Despite lawmakers'' calls to study the issue, the possibility exists consolidation could be acted upon during this session or a subsequent special session as necessitated by the budget. 

 

"When we get into the next fiscal year you''re talking over a billion dollars (shortfall). Things are going to happen this session legislators and the public are not going to like, but they''re things we''re going to have to address," said Moak.