School district consolidation is a hot topic among some budget-conscious leaders in Jackson, and Bolivar County is the most-often-used poster child in those discussions. With six districts within its borders, Bolivar County has more districts than any other county in the state.
The Cleveland district has almost half the 7,000 public school students in the county. West Bolivar in Rosedale serves about 1,100; North Bolivar in Shelby serves about 900, and Shaw and Mound Bayou each have about 700 students.
Those are all small districts - only 18 of the 149 districts in Mississippi have fewer than 1,000 students - but Benoit, with fewer than 300 students, deserves special mention. It is the second-smallest district in the state, and it has fewer students than 85% of the individual schools in the state. It spends more than $10,000 per student, which is third-highest in the state, and yet it spends a lower percentage (48%) of those funds on instruction than any other district except three.
Although it is classified as having only one school, the Benoit district has a superintendent, who makes about $84,000; an assistant superintendent, whose salary is $67,449; and a full-time principal (although the position is vacant at the moment), who last school year was paid about $52,000. None of these salary numbers include the value of the fringe benefits they receive. This means that more than $203,000 will be spent this year simply to pay the salaries of the leaders of a school with fewer than 300 students.
When looking at the county as a whole, superintendents are paid a total of $557,000. This does not include assistant superintendents. In the West Bolivar and Shaw districts, superintendent salaries are in the upper $80s; in North Bolivar and Mound Bayou, they are in the mid-$90s; and the Cleveland superintendent is paid $108,000.
Consolidation proposals usually fail, it is said, for two reasons: football and race. The football argument could be moot in Bolivar County, because no schools would necessarily have to be closed. The race issue should be moot, too, because all districts other than Cleveland have student populations that are more than 95% Black.
Quality of instruction, as measured by the state achievement test ratings, is fairly high in Cleveland, but all schools in the other districts are rated Level 2 or Level 3 for achievement (Level 5 is the highest rating). This shows that there is no apparent educational advantage to maintaining themselves as separate districts.
In 1992, the Bolivar County Board of Supervisors commissioned an evaluation to determine the feasibility of consolidating administrative systems among the school districts in the county. It was conducted by Irb Benjamin, who had chaired the Education Committee in the state senate. He recommended leaving the Cleveland district alone and consolidating the remaining five districts for administrative purposes. His recommendations were never acted on by the supervisors.
Senator Benjamin's proposed changes would have saved almost $950,000 per year, based on 1991-92 costs. Based on the increase in education costs since that time, the savings would now likely exceed $2 million per year.
Necessary reforms often take place only when a budget crisis forces the abandonment of the status quo. The current budget crisis should be viewed as an opportunity for real reform, and Bolivar County can lead the way.
Forest Thigpen is president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, an independent public policy organization based in Jackson.