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Consolidation efforts likely to gain momentum

February 10, 2013

Sid Salter
Syndicated
Columnist

State Rep. Toby Barker’s House Bill 716 calling for creation of a new Starkville Consolidated School District from a merger of the existing Starkville School District and the Oktibbeha County School District is likely the first salvo in a more systematic battle to reduce the number of school districts in the state after decades of the issue of school consolidation being a political planet killer to politicians who dared mention it.

It’s accurate to say that Barker, a Republican second-term lawmaker who represents Forrest and Lamar counties, rocked both the Starkville and Oktibbeha districts when HB 716 was filed and even more when it cruised to passage in the House Education Committee. Reaction locally has been a mixed bag, but in broad strokes there have been expressions of both opposition and support for the measure in public discourse.

To be fair, there has been some local grousing that Barker introduced consolidation legislation that didn’t impact his own constituents, but districts far upstate. But Barker’s bill has received the public support of local House members including Democratic Rep. Tyrone Ellis and Republican Rep. Gary Chism.

That’s a far cry from what the school consolidation issue used to represent for state lawmakers. Back in the 1980s, when business-oriented lawmakers looked at the number of school districts in the state and saw opportunities for both savings in terms of funding public education and opportunities to improve academic performance, they spoke publicly in support of consolidation at their own political peril.

I watched a number of veteran state lawmakers lose their seats in the Legislature in that era for even daring to entertain their idea. Their opponents in the next elected used those contemplations to paint incumbent lawmakers as “the guy who wants to close your community’s school.”

That sad fact of practical politics made school consolidation a dirty phrase in the legislature until the last few years.

In 2011, Gov. Haley Barbour’s Commission on Mississippi Education Structure talked about giving the state Board of Education authority to implement Barbour’s desire to consolidate the state’s 152 school districts down to 100 districts. But a consultant to that ad hoc group recommended that 21 school districts be merged with other districts.

One of the hitches that stalled the Barbour commission’s work was the very question being played out in Barker’s legislation between the Starkville and Oktibbeha County schools – the notion of whether a “successful” school district could be forced to consolidate with a poor-performing district.

But by 2012, the Legislature’s Republican leadership had begun to deal with consolidation in a piecemeal fashion — passing a bill to consolidate the six school districts in Bolivar County down to no more than three districts. Late last year, the U.S. Justice Department approved that plan.

Despite Mississippi’s historical recalcitrance in addressing the politically sensitive issue of school consolidation, most lawmakers and a couple of statewide officials have told me in recent days the they expect more consolidation legislation to be introduced – and passed – in the Mississippi Legislature.

It seems that the “perfect storm” of hard economic times, strained local government coffers, dissatisfaction from chronically failing school districts and other bedrock influences have overcome the old political truism that school consolidation is a sure political ticket home for lawmakers who advocate it as a means to save money and improve school performance.

But for stakeholders in Starkville and Oktibbeha County, many of the old concerns remain real in terms of resistance to change and loyalty.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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