BOLIVAR COUNTY — Five Bolivar County school districts would be merged into two in 2014, under a bill headed to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk.
Senate Bill 2760 passed the House 66-53 and the Senate 31-19. It would require that the Benoit, West Bolivar and Shaw districts merge into a new West Bolivar district based in Rosedale. Mound Bayou and North Bolivar would be merged into a new North Bolivar district based in Mound Bayou. The Cleveland city district would be left alone.
“When you’ve got limited resources, you do not need six superintendents, literally, down the highway from one another,” said Senate Education Committee chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.
Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, said the bill would free up at least $1.2 million by cutting administrative salaries. Barker said the districts are small, have lost large shares of their population over the last 10 years, and some have only basic course offerings. Barker said he hoped the combination would create a “critical mass” of students and that savings could be used to improve teaching and widen course offerings.
“This administrative consolidation does not mean schools will close,” Barker said.
Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, said there’s no evidence consolidation will improve education. She said the county’s rural schools are too far apart to combine, and also attacked the bill for singling out Bolivar County and not gathering sufficient community input.
“Do you have any objective criteria for consolidating districts in this state?” she asked.
Barker said he favored a broader consolidation, but that going a county at a time was the only way to overcome political opposition.
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, unsuccessfully tried to persuade his colleagues to send the bill back for more negotiations. He wanted to set public hearings in Bolivar County to give residents and local elected officials a chance to discuss their ideas about school district consolidation.
Coleman noted that West Bolivar and Benoit combined high schools for a time in the 1990s, but said transportation costs were too high. She said that it was impossible to guarantee that new school boards wouldn’t close schools. Opponents also questioned whether merging school districts would threaten desegregation decrees. All of Bolivar’s rural districts have student bodies today that are more than 90 percent black. Cleveland, which is not included, is under renewed federal scrutiny because of racial divisions in its school system.
Mississippi has a total of 152 school districts. Bolivar is the only county in the state with six districts. Of the six, Mound Bayou is rated “successful” on the state’s seven-step rating scale, while the others are rated “academic watch” or “low performing.” The five non-Cleveland districts are among the state’s 20 smallest by enrollment.
Republican Lt. Gov Tate Reeves has championed school consolidation this year.
Another bill already signed by Bryant would merge Sunflower County’s three districts. However, the state has taken over all three Sunflower districts for either financial or academic reasons. The Legislature is also considering allowing the state Board of Education to consolidate or force new elections in failing districts that it takes into conservatorship for a second time.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour had proposed eliminating as many as a third of the state’s school districts, but a commission he appointed to study the issue urged that districts be lured into the process through financial incentives.
“You cannot cram consolidation down the throats of local people, paying local taxes, who have kids in the district, and not expect them to resent it,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.
Barker had originally seemed to lean toward that position, amending the Senate bill to just require a study in Bolivar, but said he changed his mind after getting more information.
The bill originally would have given the power to the state Board of Education to consolidate the state’s three independent agricultural high school districts as well. But an amendment instead only directs a study of agricultural high schools in Coahoma, Forrest and Hinds counties.