Burnham to propose new law for failing school districts

JACKSON — Mississippi State Superintendent Tom Burnham said yesterday he would propose a law to allow the state to either forcibly merge or require new elections in failing school districts, because the current reform system does not work.

“We will bring forward legislation this year to end conservatorship,” Burnham said at an orientation for newly elected state lawmakers.

In conservatorship, the state pushes aside local authorities and sends interim leaders to reform a district and its schools. The state can take over because of poor student performance, financial problems or safety issues.

Burnham said conservatorship isn’t working, and that the state may have to take over more districts in coming years than the seven it is now trying to turn around. Districts in conservatorship today include Drew, Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola, Okolona, Sunflower County and Tate County.

In new elections, Burnham said he would seek to ban former school board members and elected superintendents from running again. He said that forcible mergers are desirable in cases where districts are too small or too poor to raise enough money for adequate schools.

“Drew will not be able to emerge from conservatorship,” he said. “That’s a size problem. It’s a resource problem.”

Oleta Fitzgerald, regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, asked what would happen after a district is abolished or new elections are held. She says the state promised under the 2009 Children First Act to provide assistance to troubled districts before a takeover, but hasn’t spent the money to live up to that pledge.

“We keep looking for these silver bullet deals,” she said. “The change has to be systemic and we just have to take the resources and put them there.”

In 2009, Gov. Haley Barbour proposed consolidating as many as 50 of the state’s school districts. A commission he named later suggested merging 18 school districts and three agricultural high schools, although it said mergers should be voluntary, not mandatory. The Legislature took no action on the proposal.

Besides opposition to losing local control and the identity provided by local schools, state Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said consolidation is sticky because of differing tax rates and amounts of debt. There’s also the question of forcing better-performing districts to absorb a troubled neighbor, said Brown, who served as chairman of the House Education Committee for the past four years.

Burnham acknowledged that his proposal could be perceived as a back door to consolidation. But he said without it, the state will be stuck struggling with the same problem districts in the future. Burnham said he’s presented the idea to Gov.-elect Phil Bryant.

Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, which has backed efforts to improve low-performing schools, said the 2009 law is unclear about whether the state has the power to abolish or reconstitute a district. She said Burnham’s proposal would bring “clarity.”

Andrew Mullins, a University of Mississippi professor and former state education official, said that he’s heard suggestions that the state could have to take over 20 to 25 more school districts, out of the 152 statewide.

Burnham wouldn’t give an estimate of possible takeovers, but told lawmakers that “a host” of schools are “on the bubble.” He said it would exceed the ability of the state Department of Education and its 527 employees to assist so many districts.

Brown said the conservatorship program hasn’t been properly funded: “He just doesn’t have the resources to do it.” Brown said he’s talked to Burnham and supports the proposal in principle.

Burnham said that when the state turns back districts to local leadership, they aren’t flourishing. Burnham said that local residents too often aren’t involved in turnaround efforts, putting the burden on leaders the state sends out.

North Panola, where financial trouble led to the very first state takeover in 1996, was placed back into conservatorship in 2008 because of academic problems. Burnham said he feared other districts would also return to conservatorship.

Mullins said that while financial problems can often be cleaned up quickly, poor academic performance can be harder to remedy quickly.

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