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Analysis: Opponents say school merger won’t save money

JEFF AMY

Residents trying to prevent consolidation of the Richton and Perry County school districts are trying a new argument — that combining the two would cost more money and not less.

Lawmakers last year appointed a study commission of people from the two districts to suggest plans for a merger. That’s a common tactic when local lawmakers are fighting consolidation.

Such committees often reject the mandate to plan for a combination and instead fight. For a time, it appeared Perry and Richton County would work together on a plan. But while the report they sent back does lay out a skeletal merger plan, commission members ultimately decided they too wanted to fight to preserve their districts’ autonomy.

Intriguingly, opponents are arguing against consolidation because they say that, counter to the usual rationale, it won’t save money or increase efficiency.

The bill creating the commission, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, called for recommendations on “how to maximize education quality in Richton and Perry County while eliminating duplicative and wasteful administrative spending.”

Calculations by Richton resident Wayne Adams, who served on the six-member commission, show the two districts could save $209,000 annually by eliminating duplicate costs of two school boards and two central offices. But employees generally earn more in Perry County than in Richton, and calculations show it would cost $230,000 a year to raise the salaries of lower-paid workers.

“By the time you equalize their salaries, you’re going to knock out any savings,” Adams said. “We think there’s no real savings in this thing.”

Higher salaries would, in legislative parlance “put more money into the classroom,” but it’s unclear if it would produce the academic gains that Tollison has said he wants.

Adams found overall that Richton spends less than the statewide average per student, while Perry County’s spending is about average.

It’s unclear if the opposition will have any effect. Many Republicans have taken the wisdom of school consolidation as an article of faith. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves bragged about it Thursday to the Mississippi Economic Council. Since 2012, lawmakers have voted to cut the number of school districts by 13 through a series of mergers, some of which have yet to take effect.

Tollison, a Republican from Oxford, said he hasn’t read the report, but says other reports project savings, and he believes 1,031-student Perry County and 681-student Richton are too small to survive in the long run. He also says a combined tax base would help guarantee adequate resources. Sen. Billy Hudson, a Hattiesburg Republican representing Perry County, said he wants Tollison to quash the plan. Hudson said there’s no reason to merge B-rated Richton and C-rated Perry County.

“My understanding when we started consolidating is that we were going after failing schools,” Hudson said. “We can’t find any good reason to consolidate Perry County other than to do away with another district.”

Hudson concedes he may not be successful, noting Tollison “doesn’t lose very often.” The strategy of isolating opposition by doing one consolidation at a time has been effective. Local lawmakers vote against it, but most lawmakers are unaffected and vote for it.

The bottom line is that schools are the heart of most rural communities, and those places fight consolidation. Most newly merged districts have chosen to keep all existing schools open. Four high schools — Drew, East Oktibbeha, West Oktibbeha and Hinds Agricultural — have closed.

Adams acknowledged that schools have mostly stayed open in mergers, but said Richton voters would be a minority when electing school board members in a combined Perry County district.

“We feel like we would lose control of our local schools,” Adams said.

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Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy .

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