Barbour budget has education mergers, agency cuts

Published 2:59 pm Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Monday unveiled a budget that includes sweeping reorganization of state government, including proposals to merge eight universities into five and reduce the number of school districts by a third.

Barbour proposes spending $5.5 billion during the year that begins next July 1. That’s $715 million less than the state originally budgeted for the current year, and Barbour said the reduced figure reflects the expectation of sluggish revenues and slow economic recovery.

The governor’s budget includes $370 million in federal stimulus money that will disappear the following year. He proposes closing some mental health facilities, transferring some duties from one agency to another and consolidating purchasing and personnel functions.

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His budget does not include increases in taxes or fees. It also does not include state employee furloughs because Barbour, a Republican, said those would provide only a temporary fix. He said spending for most agencies would be cut about 12 percent.

“Nothing about this budget is going to be popular,” said Barbour, who’s about to enter his seventh year in office.

Mississippi lawmakers often ignore the governor’s budget, but some say they want guidance from Barbour now because state revenues have fallen short of expectations for 14 months. Legislative leaders will release their own budget in December, and the full House and Senate will vote on a final plan in early 2010.

Barbour said he knows many of his proposals are politically sensitive, including his plan to merge Mississippi University for Women into the larger Mississippi State University and to consolidate the three historically black universities into one. Barbour proposes merging Mississippi Valley State University and Alcorn State University into the larger Jackson State University.

He said none of the university campuses would close, but the state would save money by reducing administrative jobs and eliminating duplication in academic offerings.

“Sometimes you have to look your friends in the eye and tell them something they don’t want to hear,” Barbour said.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said he will evaluate Barbour’s ideas, including the plan to merge hiring and purchasing for all campuses.

“We want to do everything necessary to protect quality,” Bounds said.

University consolidations would have to be approved by lawmakers, and Barbour said his plan to reduce the number of school districts from 152 to 100 would have to be cleared by lawmakers and the state Board of Education.

Barbour said school districts that have good financial management and attain high academic standards would be the most likely to survive, while those with poorer performance could be merged into stronger districts.

Barbour also proposes closing the Mississippi School of the Arts campus in Brookhaven and moving the arts courses to Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which is on the MUW campus in Columbus. Both are residential public high schools for high-achieving students.

House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, opposes Barbour’s proposal to consolidate universities. Buck said Mississippi would hurt its own economic future by limiting higher education.

“While the state is clearly experiencing some of the most difficult times in our modern history, it is not the time to panic and undermine the very economic engine that can greatly enhance our ability to rise above the recession,” Buck said in a news release.

Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said he’s willing to consider Barbour’s consolidation ideas.

“I’m not willing to say that we will go forward or that we will stop the conversation,” Davis said.

MUW is in Columbus and is about 22 miles from MSU in Starkville. Preliminary enrollment figures released by the College Board in September showed MUW has 2,478 students this fall. MUW has a majority-female enrollment, although it has accepted male students since the 1980s. MSU, with 18,601 students, is the state’s largest university.

MVSU, in Itta Bena, has 2,819 students. ASU has 3,339 students on its main campus in Lorman and at its branches in Natchez and Vicksburg. JSU, which is in the capital city and is between the other two universities, enrolls 8,875.

Buck said consolidation would hurt students.

“I would caution that playing politics with the future of young people enthusiastic about the vast possibilities a higher education offers them is the wrong approach,” Buck said. “Nor should we allow our past racial errors to again impede our efforts to address today’s educational problems.”

A group of black parents and students sued Mississippi in 1975 and said the state had not given enough money to the three historically black universities. The state settled the suit in 2002 and agreed to direct $503 million to the three schools, collectively, over 17 years.

Bounds said he asked university leaders more than a month ago to find ways to save money with the expectation of 12 percent cuts in the coming year and another 10 percent in cuts the following year. They’re scheduled to report to him in January.

“They’re looking at every academic program,” Bounds said. “They’re looking at every offsite campus. They’re looking at administrative costs. They’re looking at every single cost, trying to figure out how we deal with this downturn.”