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Commission nixes school consolidations

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — A commission reviewing Mississippi’s public school structure has proposed steps to smooth the way for school districts to consolidate, but doesn’t mandate any mergers.

The Governor’s Office released the report Friday.

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.

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 recommended that consolidation continue to be voluntary with the state providing some incentives to entice mergers.

The final report recommends that school districts within a county merge some administrative functions, such as the purchase of supplies. The commission also said the Legislature should provide some financial incentives to districts to consolidate.

The panel, headed by Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, said school districts that do consolidate should not be penalized for low achievement scores, and should be exempt from such standards for a while. The state Department of Education also would provide technical assistance to any newly consolidated districts.

“I believe these recommendations provide the Legislature with some excellent options for consideration,” Patterson said in a statement. “The commission examined the issue from every angle and developed recommendations that address the consolidation of both school districts and services.”

The panel also recommended that the state Board of Education be given authority to dissolve districts that are placed in conservatorship or the recovery programs and reconstitute them as a new district with new district lines and new leaders.

“These commonsense solutions are a good first step toward improving the educational and financial conditions of Mississippi schools,” Barbour said in a statement. “Through innovate approaches to education, we can improve the efficiency of our districts and quality of opportunities for Mississippi children.”

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