Panolian Editorial

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 30, 2010

School district merger issue complex, opens many questions

A Colorado consulting firm recently identified 18 Mississippi school districts that, they say, if merged with neighboring districts could save costs and improve test scores.

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John Augenblick, president of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc., delivered the findings to a panel Gov. Haley Barbour contacted in 2009 to study school consolidation.

So, what’s at stake if Panola County school districts are merged?

First, don’t get excited one way or the other. Although there are distinct advantages and disadvantages, the effort to merge would be a long process with possible legal implications that would have to be “ironed out” by courts, local  officials, acts of the Mississippi Legislature and the U.S. Justice Department.

By mentioning the merger of school districts, many may visualize school populations being merged under one roof. That’s not going to happen either. Savings and better management are predicted with the merging of the districts’ administrations, not by combining individual schools.

Identical titles and positions are held in both districts. By merging, many positions would be consolidated, the thought goes. There would most likely be the same number of students and teachers in each separate school.

School boards of trustees would be combined. Where there are presently two boards of five trustees each, a merged district might just have one five-member board. In addition to its two district school boards, Panola County once had an elected county board of education where members were elected from each of the five supervisor districts. That board was in charge of funding and transportation for the county’s schools and was dissolved with the mindset that the separate districts could manage their own finances and transportation.

Many county-wide districts currently operate under this system with the county having full administrative control.

Also, would the U.S. Justice Department approve abolishing six predominantly minority school trustee districts (North Panola has four and South Panola has two), for two county-wide predominantly minority (Supervisor District One and Two) districts?

And then, what about funding?

On South Panola’s end of the county, bond issues have been passed on a regular basis to construct, upgrade, remodel and expand buildings at the district’s six schools.

At North Panola, there hasn’t been a successful bond issue since before integration in the early 1970s.

Also, the more vibrant economic community in the south end of the county has led to taxable property increases either through new property to tax or increased value of existing property. In the north end, development has been much slower and decreases in property values have been noted due to depreciation of mobile home values. Funding increases there often come from an increased tax rate.

Would the south end of the county also be responsible for bringing the north end’s buildings up-to-date? Would current bonded indebtedness of the two districts now be shared among all  county property owners or remain payable by only those who live within the particular district?

On the other hand, as long as one school in either district is dysfunctional or under- serving, all Panola County schools will wear the moniker that Panola County schools are not up to par.

Is this an opportunity to help bring all Panola County Schools to a higher level and spread around the cost?

Or is this a time to “hunker down” and defend our school districts’ borders and sovereignty?

What we’re doing now is not working, at least not for all the children of Panola County.