JACKSON — Gov. Haley Barbour unveiled his budget plan yesterday, and as expected, Barbour’s proposal calls for a major restructuring of the state’s education system.
The state’s public school districts should be reduced from 152 to 100, Barbour said, in an effort to save $65 million in fiscal year 2012, as state revenue continues to plunge.
The reforms reach into higher education, too. Barbour’s budget plan proposes that the Mississippi University for Women merge with Mississippi State University, and for Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University to merge with Jackson State. In each instance, the campuses of the schools eliminated would remain open, but carry a new name. Barbour estimates those moves will save the state $35 million in FY12.
The proposals come on the heels of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s meeting last week, in which lawmakers learned revenue in fiscal year 2011, which starts next July 1, would come in $715 million under appropriations for FY10. The predicted shortfall for FY12 is over $1 billion.
“These are major changes for a significant new direction,” Barbour said.
School district consolidation and university mergers have historically been dead on arrival when the ideas reached the Capitol. Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs and chair of the House Universities and Colleges Committee, said in a statement that merging universities is not the solution to the state’s revenue problems.
“I would disagree with the governor or anyone who would suggest that closing universities or reducing access and opportunity to a variety of educational course options is the way to go,” he said. “While this may appear to some to be the answer, it is my view that this method would serve as only a short term approach and would do considerable damage to the state’s future long term economic viability.”
Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, was the first to publicly broach the idea combining educational entities last month at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob.
“The governor has presented a very bold budget that has a lot of merit and one that is a work in progress,” Flaggs said this afternoon. Flaggs serves on the JLBC, which will present its own budget recommendation Dec. 2. Flaggs said he would visit, over the next month, the president of each university affected in Barbour’s plan before making a decision on whether he would support it.
“I’m open for discussion. We’re at a crossroads. We’ve got to make these tough decisions.”