Gov. Haley Barbour announced yesterday the formation of an advisory panel on school consolidation, one of the more controversial suggestions from his November budget recommendations. Composed of state and local education officials, business leaders and legislators, the 16-member Commission on Mississippi Education will begin studying consolidation in January 2010 and deliver a report to the governor by April.
Barbour fueled speculation about K-12 consolidation with his Nov. 16 budget proposal, which called for reducing the state's 152 school districts to 100. That proposal has garnered some approval, some vocal opposition and many calls for careful study.
"Potentially there's benefit from consolidation, but it has to be done very carefully, so I think the commission is the right way to go," Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute and a commission member, said today.
Other commission members include: the chairmen of the House and Senate Education committees, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, and Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian; state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham; Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds; Madison County Schools Superintendent Mike Kent; and Jackson businessman Socrates Garrett.
Barksdale acknowledged that, in theory, merging some school districts could save money. Mississippi has several districts with one school, and others with student populations of about 300, the same size as some Jackson middle schools.
"There are some unintended consequences that could flow from (consolidation)," Barksdale said. "In the desire to save money, let's make sure that we aren't damaging student outcomes, that we aren't messing up a strong school district, that we don't set off white flight. There are a number of bounces that this thing could take, and we just need to be very mindful of all the possible consequences."
Barksdale is also a member of the state's legislative task force on under-performing schools, which examined consolidation at a November meeting. At that meeting, Gail Gaines, a vice president with the Southern Regional Educational Board, told task-force members that educational research does not show a consistent educational benefit from consolidating districts. Even the economic benefits of merger reduce as school-district size increases, Gaines said, so that a merger of two districts with more than 1,500 students each would not save any money in administrative costs.