Wide-scale combining of districts a longshot

Published 6:00 am Friday, February 4, 2005

A local superintendent said he isn’t concerned that legislationunder consideration in the Capitol could force a referendum onschool consolidation here.

“With the people we have in our communities and the schooldistricts we have, I don’t see this coming about,” said LincolnCounty Superintendent Terry Brister. “We are all very, very proudof our schools here, and we identify with them.”

A bill to consolidate five public school districts on theMississippi Gulf Coast could be amended to include all districts inthe state, Senate Education Chairman Mike Chaney said.

The Senate Education Committee this week passed a billauthorizing consolidation at public schools in Biloxi, Gulfport,Long Beach, Pass Christian and Harrison County. Voters would makethe final decision on consolidation in those districts through areferendum.

Chaney filed a similar bill that would open consolidationefforts statewide but didn’t bring it up for a vote by Tuesday, thedeadline for committees to pass bills.

However, Chaney said the Gulf Coast consolidation bill could beamended to include districts across the state when it comes up fora full Senate vote.

Chaney said today he is not optimistic the bill will become laweven if it passes in the Senate.

“I don’t think it has a chance of passing in the House,” hesaid.

The amendment would surely kill the bill, Chaney said, addingthat it may pass if left confined to the Gulf Coast districts.

A second possibility, he said, is to amend the bill in a waythat extends it statewide but only requests referendum votes indistricts with a school population of fewer than 900 students.

With student populations in excess of 2,000 students, thatproposal would affect neither the Lincoln County School Districtnor the Brookhaven School District.

The consolidation bill was intentioned as a “cost-saving measurefor the local districts. It doesn’t save the state any money atall,” Chaney said.

Brister said regardless of the form a consolidation bill mighttake, he did not believe people in either the city or countydistrict would be receptive. He said he strongly believed thatshould a referendum be forced statewide it would be easily defeatedhere.

The Legislature and state Department of Education have theauthority to force consolidation without a referendum, Bristersaid, but he said he doubted either would take such a drasticstep.

But Brister said if lawmakers and the Education Department agreedistricts should be consolidated on financial or academic grounds,then they should do it.

“But I don’t think they could justify a need with the Brookhavenand Lincoln County districts,” Brister said.

Chaney said he intends to work with other state educationleaders to look at ways school districts can save more money,including consolidation, following the session.

“I plan to have a study committee appointed to look atconsolidation after the session,” he said.