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Barker 2013 legislation proves prophetic

By Sid Salter

School consolidation legislation now under consideration in the state Senate would consolidate or eliminate 10 of the state’s existing 144 existing state school districts.

Specifically, the legislation would consolidate the Durant Municipal School District with Holmes County, consolidate the Houston, Okolona and Chickasaw County districts, eliminate the Lumberton district, with about half being absorbed by Lamar County and half by the Poplarville district, consolidate Carroll County, Montgomery County and the Winona Municipal districts, and eliminate the Coahoma Agricultural High School District.

The common denominator is this legislation is that it targets districts or schools with small or declining enrollments and small or declining tax bases.

The history of school consolidation efforts in Mississippi is one that suggests that school consolidation that emanates from the local level faces political obstacles that are tightly ingrained with local political survival.

Three years ago back in 2013, state Rep. Toby Barker’s House Bill 716 called for creation of a new Starkville-Oktibbeha County Consolidated School District from a merger of the-then Starkville School District and the then-Oktibbeha County School District as what I wrote at the time was 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.

Then and now, while the U.S. Justice Department continues to examine the ultimate intricacies of that Starkville-Oktibbeha County consolidation, it’s accurate to say that Barker 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.

There was local grousing that Barker introduced consolidation legislation that didn’t impact his own constituents, but districts far upstate. But Barker’s bill ultimately 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.

I watched a number of veteran state lawmakers lose their seats in the Legislature in that era for even daring to entertain their idea.

That sad fact of practical politics made school consolidation a dirty phrase in the legislature until the last few years. But Barker’s 2013 legislative effort in essence rewrote the political rules governing how the Legislature deals with consolidation.

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 decided 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. Turns out, that can happen.

By 2012, the Legislature’s Republican leadership had begun to deal with consolidation in a more piecemeal fashion — passing a bill to consolidate the six school districts in Bolivar County down to no more than three districts. In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department approved that plan.

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.

What happened in Starkville and Oktibbeha County is now likely to happen in 10 more school districts — with more likely to come in the future.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.