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Consolodation could save the education system as much as $500,000 a year

Folks start to consider the ‘C’ word

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds released a list last week of 14 school districts now operating at a deficit after the latest round of cuts to the state’s budget. Included in that announcement were an additional 10 districts that could be in the red by the end of the fiscal year.

Gov. Haley Barbour, due to lagging revenue collections, has already trimmed $200 million from the fiscal year 2009 budget. The second round of cuts, handed down shortly after legislators convened in Jackson, hit the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the formula used to determine funding for each of Mississippi’s 163 school districts.

Tensions are already rising over MAEP funding three weeks into the 2009 session. The House Appropriations Committee cleared a bill last week that would use $68 million in projected revenue from a cigarette tax increase to restore MAEP to full funding.

“That was incredibly irresponsible,” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, who sits on the Education Committee.

With the state’s team of economists recently telling the Legislature that effects of the national recession will be felt in Mississippi longer than in other states, education funding will likely remain a contentious issue.

Going forward, state revenues will have to be expanded and expenses reduced. With lawmakers annually under intense pressure to fully fund MAEP, cutting spending in other areas of the education budget will become mandatory.

With that reality, lawmakers may eventually be forced to confront the highly emotional issue of school consolidation.

Past efforts have historically been met with stern protest from communities whose schools were the target of consolidation.

If revenue collections continue to plunge, the sheer number of school districts in some counties could find themselves under the microscope.

Bolivar County, whose 2006 Census population estimate was 38,352, has six separate school districts, most of any county in Mississippi. Hinds County, the state’s most populous with 249,000 residents, has three. DeSoto County, with 144,000 people, has one school district — DeSoto County Schools.

“Consolidation is always an issue,” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton.

It is an issue that could potentially have several layers, Burton said. Consolidation would not necessarily mean that schools would have to be closed. Rather, it could mean combining district services and purchasing departments, or bringing several of one county’s districts under one administrative umbrella, eliminating the current method of each school district, no matter how small the student population, having its own administration.

“Quite frankly, that would be a really good thing,” Burton said.

Lawmakers in Jackson reconfiguring districts and their administrative hierarchies would likely not sit well with targeted communities. There is the option of having voters in districts decide the consolidation question. Last November, voters in the Prentiss County School District gave the green light to school board members to explore a consolidation plan as a way to deal with budget shortfalls. School board members voted not to pursue it.

“We try to keep the school business at the local level as much as possible,” Burton said. “But, there comes a time when you have to look at consolidation of administration, consolidation of services, consolidation of purchasing. There are a lot of things that you could look at (consolidating).”

The last cost-savings estimate of consolidation, given to legislators in 2005 by a consultant with the firm that helped to develop MAEP, was $500,000 per year. A task force created by the Legislature last year to study under-performing schools recommended lawmakers at least explore the cost-saving opportunities provided by consolidation.

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State, said the emotion surrounding consolidation often clouds the argument.

“Even if there is a compelling reason for school consolidation, when that possibility is raised, there is tremendous resistance,” Wiseman said. “That is certainly a great example of where government studies (that show consolidation can cut costs) run completely opposite to local sentiment. Nobody wants their school to close. Certainly, it would not be something that would happen a year or so out from an election.”

Eventually, Burton and Wiseman agree — economic reality will have to be met head-on.

“I think if (the economy) stays in the ditch as we go along, everything is on the table,” Wiseman said.

“I don’t know that we’re at that point yet, but this is going to wake up a lot of people and get people thinking about it,” Burton said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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