Bryant signs school merger
by Chance Wright
Apr 20, 2012 | 4067 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sunflower County is one of the poorest counties, not only in the state but also across the nation and unemployment has reached nearly 17 percent in the county over the last several years

For years the children of Sunflower County have been split into three separate school districts — Indianola, Sunflower County and Drew.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, Drew and Indianola School Districts were both ranked failing and Sunflower County at low performing for the 2010-2011 school year.

The Sunflower County School District includes the schools in Ruleville.

On Thursday Gov. Phil Bryant signed SB 2330, a bill that will require the three school districts in Sunflower County to consolidate into one countywide district.

This legislation will also require the consolidated district to be controlled by one appointed superintendent as well as one countywide school board.

Consolidation has been discussed for years between the state legislature and the Mississippi Department of Education, but there has been little political will to force mergers in areas where high-performing districts are near lower-performing ones.

Wendy Polk, spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Education, said that there are many reasons why the consolidation makes sense.

"Not only were the districts' failing the scores part of the discussion but enrollment has continued to decrease over the past several years," said Polk. "Whenever you see a decrease in the number of students being this severe and graduation rates being as low, you know that you have a problem somewhere."

The bill does not require closing any current school buildings, although residents have said they fear that result

The districts have more than 4,300 students combined.

Strongly backed by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, this legislation may be used as a model for consolidating other districts in future.

"I appreciate Gov. Bryant signing this meaningful piece of my legislative agenda," said Reeves in a statement released from his office on Thursday. "Consolidation will enable the district to focus on classroom needs over administrative costs by eliminating duplicative functions and freeing up more than $1 million for better educational use."

Like Sen. Gray Tollison, who authored the bill and currently sits atop the Senate Education Committee, Reeves and Bryant are both republicans.

While finances have been put at the forefront of this discussion since it was first introduced at the capital in February, there are some other underlying factors that were taken into account.

The Indianola School District was the first to be taken over by the state because during the 2009-2010 school year the district didn't have enough money to make payroll.

The Sunflower County School District, which includes the public school system in Ruleville, followed suit when the state took over in 2010 citing allegations ranging from sexual assault on school grounds to the misuse of federal dollars.

Then just last year the state was forced to take action on the Drew School District.

Reasons for the take over there ranged from a lack of community-based support of the education system to an increasing amount of gang violence on school grounds.

Sen. Derrick T. Simmons (D), who represents Washington County and portions of Bolivar County, voted against the merger while Sen. Willie Simmons (D-Cleveland) was absent and did not cast a vote.

Sen. Eugene "Buck" Clark (R), who represents portions of Bolivar, Humphreys, Sharkey, Washington and Yazoo counties, voted for the merger.

"I stand behind my initial vote because it has been proven in the past that mandated mergers never work," said Sen. Derrick Simmons. "I just don't think that consolidating the districts in Sunflower County will be the best avenue to take for the welfare of the students involved."

Rep. Linda Coleman (D-Cleveland) also voted against the bill and Rep. Tommy Taylor (R-Cleveland) was absent from the House during the vote.

Attempts to contact Bob Strebeck, state appointed conservator for the Sunflower School District, Dr. Earl Watkins, state appointed conservator for the Indianola School District, and Charles Barron, state appointed conservator for the Drew School District were unsuccessful.

The act will take affect on or before September 1, 2012.