Mike Kent, who has for months been steering the Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School Board through merging two school districts, made a telling remark Monday when he spoke to the Leflore County Board of Supervisors.
The Mississippi Department of Education official was there to address concerns over what is projected to be a 28 percent increase in the tax rate for those who live in the soon-to-be-dissolved Leflore County School District. (Those in Greenwood will see a 16 percent decrease, because they were already paying much more than county residents toward the public schools.)
When taxes go up sharply, people start asking questions about whether the operation could be more efficient.
Kent confirmed what we have been saying all along: that there is no way the consolidated district needs as many school buildings as when the two districts operated separately.
“The issue is, quite frankly, you’re trying to operate too many schools on a $35 million budget,” Kent said to the supervisors. “Now, that’s the elephant in the room.”
It was an apt way to put it. Although there has been plenty of discussion about merging districts in recent years, there’s been little said, at least publicly, by the consolidated school board or Superintendent Mary Brown about closing or merging individual schools. That’s been a major disappointment so far in the consolidation process.
It was encouraging, however, to hear on Monday several of the supervisors sound open to the idea. Their opinions tend to be a fair reading of the public’s mind. For them to speak openly as to why fewer school buildings make sense would suggest that many of their constituents may grasp the necessity as well.
To sum up the argument, enrollment in the public schools is way down — more than 500 students, or 10 percent, over the past five years. That almost certainly has left underutilized space spread around the two districts that will merge on July 1. When more schools are operated than are necessary, it drives up the costs of utilities, staffing, maintenance and repair. The problem is exacerbated here because several of these schools are in poor condition and need significant repairs or to be replaced with new buildings. Reducing excess infrastructure could provide the savings to help bring some schools into better condition and hopefully replace others with newer, more modern facilities.
It is too late now to do anything for the school year that begins in August, but the school board should begin planning now to effect some mergers or closures of schools a year from now.
That elephant in the room has settled in. It isn’t going away until this major and obvious problem is addressed.