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Banking on education: supporters preparing for session

Proponents for fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) pointed out major flaws in the budget proposals unveiled last month by Gov. Haley Barbour and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Even though Barbour and state lawmakers plan to reward teachers with $97.5 million in pay raises, neither proposal adequately covered teacher’s base salaries, said Nancy Loome of Clinton, a mother of three and a volunteer for the Coalition for Children and Public Education.

“It’s a misconception to the general public that the governor is taking care of teachers in his budget,” she said. “When he said he would fully fund the teacher pay raises, many people believed their base salaries were included in that amount, but they’re not. If teachers get a $1,000 raise, it doesn’t do anyone any good if their $30,000 salary isn’t covered.”

For the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2005, the state Department of Education asked legislators for $2.9 billion, which would cover $79.3 million in underfunding for the MAEP, $147 million in one-time revenue used for recurring costs and $155.3 million for an 8% teacher pay raise and other school programs. Only $49.9 million was proposed to cover the MAEP, which funds basic education and equity funding so poorer school districts have enough money to provide adequate education.

“Whatever the formula calls for is what we need,” said Loome. “Anything short of that would be, well, inadequate.”

Senate Education Committee chairman Mike Chaney (R-Vicksburg), who said he prefers the governor’s proposal over the legislative budget committee’s, pointed out that Barbour’s proposal “shifted money from one column to another without addressing the real issue: school districts cannot afford to absorb a pay increase without funding the MAEP formula.”

The buck stops in hometowns

Local school districts would have to raise taxes to absorb education cuts at the state level.

“We can probably fund education at $110 or $120 million and keep everybody solvent without a lot of millage increase at the local level,” said Chaney. “A lot of people disagree with me. Some districts have surpluses because they’ve been able to work the system, but one-third of school districts are at the max on their millage and have no place to go for more money. Legally, you can’t go above the 55-mil cap, so those districts are in a bind. And poor districts have no place to go even if they raise millage. And then you have the fat districts that have squirreled away a lot of money. There have been issues concerning some of those funds, such as buying bleachers and building ball fields, things that could have been put off for a year or two. That’s what gets up the ire of the Legislature and makes my job hard.”

Judy Rhodes, director of the Office of Educational Accountability for the Department of Education, said “the hit” that district fund balances would take by June 30 to make ends meet “is significant.”

“We understand the very difficult fiscal situation the state is in, but it places an undue financial burden on them as a whole,” she said. “School districts must have on hand sufficient money to carry them through the short months because their local revenue doesn’t come in until January, February and March.”

Chaney’s recommendation: add at least $40 million to the governor’s recommendation to cover some of the MAEP shortfall.

“If we could get to $120 million, we could probably give a 2% pay raise to teachers,” he said.

Rhodes said that’s not enough.
“You’re looking at $226 million to get where we should be this year without anything new,” she said. “Then full field, we’re short another $155 million.”

Other considerations

If MAEP isn’t fully funded, Mississippi could lose its spot as one of only a few states that haven’t been sued over balanced funding.

“Jack Reed and I have been saying all over Mississippi that we will be making a serious mistake if we do not fully fund MAEP, and we would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by any number of folks,” said former Gov. William Winter, coalition co-chair.

Even though there are no major flaws with the MAEP formula, it could use some tweaking, said Chaney.

“If there’s any flaw, it’s the fact that we didn’t make the minimum base millage at least 30% instead of 27 and 28 mills,” he said. “A couple of other things need to be fixed, such as making sure we’re not paying for phantom students, which we’re doing. That could be done without changing the formula. You’ll hear a lot of people criticize the formula, but they cannot tell you specifically what’s wrong with it.”

Mary Ann Graczyk, president of the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers, said teachers are also concerned “about the broad brush that is sweeping across all school districts considering administrative costs.”

“We would call upon the governor to release any information he has about those school districts that are in excess of acceptable administrative costs,” she said. “Who are they? Let’s name them. Let’s take a look at administrative budgets and determine which are too high for the school district in which they’re located. Are there conglomerates of school districts that need to be pulled together, such as Bolivar County? There are six school districts there. Would the governor’s staff research suggest any evidence that might exist to show that combining some of those school districts might save administrative costs? Merely to say that all Mississippians are behind the gesture of broadly cutting administrative costs might not be true.

“We’re especially concerned about the rural school districts. They may have too many administrators. Maybe they don’t. What is the evidence of all this? The American Federation of Teachers and the State Federation of Mississippi Teachers bases everything it does on clear research and presents that research in making clear decisions.”

Even if pay raises are funded, teachers will be handicapped without proper materials and resources, said Graczyk.

“The governor’s proposal is to increase supplies and we support that,” she said. “But there may be ancillary things that teachers need, like more counselors or nurses in some schools. The school district’s hand should not be tied to supply support services for teachers to do the job they need to do.”

Graczyk said that teachers wish the governor had recommended better training for school board members to avoid situations like the one in Coahoma County.
The results of a recent investigative audit into that school district directly linked many serious and sweeping problems to decisions made by the five-member elected school board, including mismanagement of money, improperly hiring personnel and not accurately reporting their job responsibilities to the state Department of Education, and interfering inappropriately in school operations, such as making unannounced visits.

“The incident in Coahoma County is indicative of school boards across the state who rubber stamp whatever the administration asks them to do, and that situation needs to be addressed,” she said.

Gearing up for battle

The Mississippi Legislature convenes for the 2005 session January 4 to begin the long and arduous task of approving the state budget.

Thousands of the state’s concerned parents and community leaders are rallying a grassroots effort similar to Mississippians for Economic Progress, which successfully lobbied for significant tort reform legislation last year.

Beginning January 4, the Coalition for Children and Public Education will conduct the state’s largest petition relay, Step Up for Children, in support of MAEP full funding and teacher pay raises. The walk will begin in Oxford, Ocean Springs and Indianola, and will culminate in a presentation of the petitions to state lawmakers at the Capitol at 11 a.m. January 11.

“We think it’s going to be a wonderful statement that people are aware of the situation and are concerned about public education in Mississippi,” said Loome.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

Step Up for Children grows at grassroots level

Thousands of the state’s concerned parents and community leaders are rallying a grassroots effort similar to Mississippians for Economic Progress, which successfully lobbied for significant tort reform legislation last year.
Beginning January 4, the Coalition for Children and Public Education will conduct the state’s largest petition relay, Step Up for Children, in support of MAEP full funding and teacher pay raises. The walk will begin in Oxford, Ocean Springs and Indianola, and will culminate in a presentation of the petitions to state lawmakers at the Capitol at 11 a.m. on January 11.

— LWJ

About Lynne W. Jeter

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