GREENWOOD – On Wednesday, 22-year-old Ericka Wheeler was recognized by lawmakers at the Mississippi Capitol for becoming Mississippi’s first female African American Rhodes Scholar.
Minutes later, those same lawmakers voted to consolidate her high school district with another underperforming district.
The consolidation of the Leflore County Schools and Greenwood Public Schools, where
Wheeler attended before attending Millsaps College, is one that is still settling in here.
The consolidation will not occur until July 2019, but preparations to merge the relatively large school districts will be both tedious and time consuming. There are 2,846 students in the Greenwood school district and 2,405 students in the Leflore County district. Consolidation of two large districts with each other has been rare.
Greenwood Schools were given a “D” rating on the state’s educational accountability scale in 2013-2014, the most recent year data is available. The Leflore County School District has been under state control since 2013 after the district received two consecutive “F” ratings.
Proponents of the consolidation – one of five adopted by the Legislature in the session that ended last week – say the merger will save money spent on administering the two systems, freeing up funds to spend on the quality of education.
Opponents of the legislation argue that the move will add unnecessary bureaucracy to the education plans already in place, ultimately not saving the districts money at all.
“At this point, the consolidation is law, and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure it goes smoothly,” said Deirdre Mayes, chairwoman of the Greenwood Public Schools board. “Personally, though, I think a decision like this should be left up to local officials instead of state. But at this point, it is what it is, and we’ll work hard to be a model of consolidation.”
Planning for the Greenwood-Leflore County merger, while still more than three years down the road, will be complex, Mayes said. No one knows who the superintendent will be. It is unclear what schools in the county will remain open and which will close their doors.
Financial advisers will have to work with both districts to formulate budget plans. Longtime district staffers will likely lose jobs, particularly as the two central offices are combined into one. Contracts of teachers, principals and staff will have to be sorted out. Transportation plans and facility use plans for students will have to be arranged.
For 30 years prior to 2012, no school districts were consolidated by the Mississippi Legislature. Since then, under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, lawmakers have merged 13 districts, cutting the total number of school districts in the state from 152 to 139.
Most of the consolidations since 2012 have merged smaller districts with larger ones. This year, three such traditional consolidations were approved: Montgomery County (273 students) to Winona (1,123 students), Durant (531 students) to Holmes County (2,898 students), and Lumberton (585 students) to Poplarville (1,927 students) and Lamar County (9,996 students).
In the majority of those 13 consolidations, the state Department of Education wiped away sitting superintendents and school board members and started fresh with new administrators.
“Really small school districts are paying really big salaries to people who are sitting in the central office, and that means, by definition, they have less money to spend in the classroom,” Reeves said Thursday. “So we’re working towards our goal of getting more money in the classroom and less money in the district office.”
But the Greenwood-Leflore County consolidation is different by nature, local and state officials said.
Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, an educator of 33 years who taught in Greenwood Public Schools for 24 years, said the reason for the consolidation had more to do with the underperforming academics than number of students.
Negotiations on this consolidation between local and state officials began last year, Mayes said. Knowing the consolidation was on the table, she met with state delegates who serve on House and Senate education committees, including Jordan, Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford and chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg.
She advocated for a merger similar to the 2013 Starkville-Oktibbeha consolidation, which allowed those two districts to keep some sitting administrators and school board members and delay the rollout of the merger for a reasonable period of time. That consolidation, by all accounts, has been a successful one, with the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District receiving one of just two Mississippi AP honor roll distinctions earlier this year.
A 32-mile drive west of Greenwood to Sunflower County tells a different story, though.
In 2012, the legislature voted to merge Indianola, Drew and Sunflower public school districts, all of which were considered academically failing by the state.
Last year, 22 percent of third graders in that consolidated district failed the state reading test required to move on to fourth grade, adding fuel to the fire of opponents of consolidation.
“Consolidation is not the answer,” Jordan said. “On one hand, yes, the schools are underperforming. But if you want to blame anybody, blame the state legislature.
“Look at how the legislature hasn’t fully funded (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program) but two times in 18 years,” he continued. “The resources aren’t there to properly educate these kids.”
The Greenwood-Leflore County consolidation was somewhat of a surprise to some officials, including Jordan.
On April 5, the House of Representatives voted to send the bill to conference committee, and the notion of further studying the consolidation over the summer was discussed.
Then on April 18, three days before the legislature adjourned for the session, the committee filed conference reports putting the consolidation back on.
Wheeler, the Rhodes Scholar, was presented with a concurrent resolution in the House on Wednesday, honoring her achievement.
After arriving an hour early, she was introduced to numerous legislators by Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood. Just hours before the vote that would consolidate the school districts, Perkins told her to be sure to mention that she was a product of Greenwood Public Schools when she met lawmakers.
Wheeler said she could tell that Perkins cared very deeply about the consolidation bill. Walking with Perkins onto the House floor, she could tell each legislator’s stance on the consolidation bill based on how Perkins introduced her to them: “I have someone I want you to meet,” he would say, Wheeler recalled. “This is Mississippi’s Rhodes Scholar, Ericka Wheeler — a product of the Greenwood public school system, I might add!”
He made a series of similar introductions of Wheeler.
“You’re basically standing in front of someone who (went to school) there,” Wheeler recalled Perkins saying to the consolidation supporters she met. “You know that you are about to sign this bill. And now, you know the possibilities for potential in that area.”
By the end of that day, both houses had voted to adopt the conference reports and begin the steps to consolidation.
While the consolidation will affect the lives of many people in Leflore County and Greenwood, Mayes said the main focus has been and will continue to be on improving academic performance at the respective districts.
“The main thing anyone is concerned with is the quality of education that our children receive,” Mayes said. “Plans for the consolidation are in the works, but for now, we’re working on getting our academic achievement up. That’s the first priority at this point.”