Consolidate: Merging districts doesn’t work any magic

Published 12:44 am Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mississippi has 82 counties and more than 150 public school districts.

For years now, whenever money has gotten tight — which is more often than not — those two numbers have sent some people into a tizzy. “Consolidate!” is their battle cry. “Save money.”

Of course, many of the voices are the same ones demanding pay reductions for legislators as a cost-savings measure. The fact that the entire budget for legislative operations is much less than 1 percent of the general fund budget doesn’t faze them.

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If something as simple as consolidation of districts resulted in better schools at a lower cost, that would be fantastic. The real picture is more of a mixed bag.

For instance, the Vicksburg Warren School District was created by blending the city and county school districts almost 25 years ago. If there’s been any cost containment, it has been minimal. Here, enrollment has gradually declined while expenses have risen. The first budget was about $28 million, which, by the way, was slightly more than the total of the previous year’s separate school district budgets combined. This year’s budget is more than $80 million.

The local district has one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state, yet has an overall “at risk of failing” in the state’s new index and most individual schools never ranked higher than “average” in previous metrics.

The local district falls well within the state cap of 3 percent as the maximum any district is allowed to spend on “administration,” as do all other districts, including those some insist must be combined.

What consolidation can accomplish, and has here, is offering a wider array of classes, especially in the arts, music and advanced history, science and math. The top students from the Vicksburg Warren School District can compete with any students anywhere.

When it comes to management of education, the one sure thing is that everybody has an opinion about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Those who cry “Consolidate!” and convince themselves it’s a cure-all for expense and quality issues are being short-sighted.

A far better recipe would be to spend time examining what consistently high-ranking schools — and there are several here — are doing and learn from them. Quality faculty members who work hard to develop parental involvement and establish a culture of learning succeed. That’s a formula easier said than done, but it’s one that never fails.