• John Macon Gillespie

COLUMN: The Cost of Consolidation

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Consolidation is messy.

Every year, the Mississippi legislature adds more rural schools to the chopping block, bringing an end to numerous school histories and, unfortunately, athletic traditions. While there is almost always a financial benefit to consolidation of struggling school districts, it oftentimes is overshadowed by the desires of students and parents wishing to keep their school open.

We've seen numerous campuses close in our lifetime in the Magnolia State. In 1986, Cumberland and Mathiston combined to form present-day East Webster. In 2002, Maben and Sturgis fell to the consolidation hammer and became West Oktibbeha County. The year 2012 saw Archie Manning's alma mater, Drew-Hunter (originally called "Drew"), be sucked into Ruleville Central.

The story goes on.

East and West Oktibbeha are absorbed into Starkville. Bassfield and Prentiss become Jefferson Davis County. Cleveland and East Side attract national attention and become Cleveland Central.

Even with all of these consolidations, it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to school closure history in Mississippi. All of these schools listed, at one time or another, played football. Their fields are now left to rot, their pads and helmets to deteriorate and their traditions to be forgotten.

The Mississippi legislature passed a measure in 2016 that would combine the Montgomery County School District and the Winona Municipal Separate School District which, if you remember, is home to Winona High School, the 2017 2A North Half Football Champions. Although there were lawsuits filed demanding that the two districts be kept separate, motions as these rarely work, and the district consolidation was put back on schedule late last year.

Two districts becoming one may not be comfortable for all parties involved, but it's not the end of the world. Both high schools usually remain independent in these situations, as will likely be the case when Houston and Houlka's school districts combine next year. The high schools get to keep their respective buildings, teams and student bodies intact, but now report to a unified central office.

Until that unified central office makes a decision all their own.

One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District did away with Montgomery County High School and Elementary School in Kilmichael, Mississippi. These decisions are usually done with good reason. Whether it be because of finances or student body size, sometimes keeping a school in a rural area open is simply not reasonable. That definitely could have been the case concerning Montgomery County which served around 500 students grades K-12 and dealt with around 25% of its town population living below the poverty line.

Regardless of the reasons behind the school closure, it always has athletic ramifications.

With these students from Montgomery County now traveling some 11 miles to Winona and joining the Tigers' student body, Winona High School is now too large to be classified as a 2A school. As is usually the case with last-minute consolidations, the MHSAA is left scrambling trying to figure out how and where to place the new school before the sports seasons start. Here's what they came up with.

- Winona will no longer play in football's Region 2-2A. Region 2-2A now consists of just Calhoun City, East Webster, Eupora and Leflore County, meaning all four of the teams in this region are guaranteed a playoff berth.

- Winona is now classified as a 3A school and will play in that classification's 5th region. Doesn't sound like a big deal, right? Wrong. The Tigers have to travel for all five of their region games this season due to the sudden nature of the classification change. Winona will travel to Forest, Morton, Choctaw Central, Southeast Lauderdale and Kemper County, giving them a huge disadvantage in region play.

Like I said at the beginning, consolidation is messy. I'm not sure that anyone is to blame for the Tigers' bad draw this season. Finances and quality education take precedence over athletics, as they should. But that doesn't mean that athletics aren't affected by these changes. The team that represented North Mississippi in last year's 2A State Title now has to travel for all of their region games and play in a higher classification.

It's not fair, but that's school business.

#Winona #MontgomeryCounty

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