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Commission not expected to mandate school mergers

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — A commission reviewing Mississippi’s public school structure will soon present its report to the governor, but it’s not expected to include mandates on school district consolidation.

However, Aubrey Patterson, a Tupelo banker who chairs the commission, said the report is still a good first step.

“I think we have moved the ball down the field, but we have not scored a touchdown,” Patterson told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

“The bottom line is, I don’t think there is any difference of opinion among members of the commission and the general public that education will benefit from continued consolidation such as we have had in the past … We have tried to help develop a road map,” he said.

Gov. Haley Barbour formed the Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure — a group of educators, business leaders and legislators — late last year after he proposed reducing the state’s 152 school districts by one-third as a way to save money.

Patterson said the commission gathered important data, heard from experts and identified issues that would hinder consolidation efforts.

As the commission did its work, talk of consolidation lost steam. Consultants hired by the commission on Barbour’s advice recommended the consolidation of about 20 districts instead of the 50 proposed by the governor.

The commission also has been divided on whether to force consolidation, instead exploring incentives to entice consolidation.

The final report is expected to recommend that school districts within a county merge some administrative functions, such as the purchase of supplies.

But some commission members, such as state Superintendent Tom Burnham and Institutions of Higher Learning Commissioner Hank Bounds, said those functions also should be merged voluntarily or the issue should be studied further before putting a mandate on local school districts.

House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who expressed concern early on about the potential roadblocks to forced consolidation, said he still believes the commission served a vital function.

“If we had not studied the issue, heard from experts and from the public, there would have been continued sniping,” Brown said. “You will still have sniping. But if we had not met, this issue would not go away. This made the process open. I am all for openness.”

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