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DAVID DALLAS: Mississippi's in'adequate' public schools

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Public School Districts all over Mississippi are still signing up to sue the state for lack of funding according to the formula established under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP, as it is called, passed as law in 1997 and has only been “adequately” funded twice. 19 districts have signed on to the lawsuit so far with 23 more still considering.

The defendants, or culprits, in this particular case are the state’s current legislative leaders, the speaker of the house, and the lieutenant governor. Behind closed doors they have been able to keep a vote on public school funding from coming to the floor of the Mississippi Legislature. If they were to allow a floor vote, legislators admit it would be next to impossible for the House and Senate to not fund MAEP, given the importance of those funds to the communities they represent. During the 2014 legislative session the Senate and House leadership were able to prevent an up or down vote on fully funding MAEP.

The name itself, Mississippi “Adequate” Education Program, does not really inspire that much confidence, but you have to start somewhere. When your state is last on every national list concerning the general well-being of its children, particularly in the area of education, you need a few first downs before you can score a touchdown. In Mississippi’s case, a three-yard run or just falling forward a couple of inches would be an improvement. Given our state’s commitment to education, one has to wonder how much additional funds it would actually take to help some of our failing schools?

David Dallas, MBJ columnist

David Dallas, MBJ columnist

The state has not raised taxes to support public school districts, but they have successfully shifted the burden to the counties. Every year the legislature does not fund the MAEP, county supervisors work to make up the difference with additional fees and taxes. Or, their district schools just fail due to lack finances and poor performance. Then the State more than willingly pays exorbitant private contracts for conservatorships. According to contacts within the Mississippi Department of Education, the State Board of Education selects the conservator and issues a contract at $850 per day, or over $100 an hour.

How these folks are selected and their qualifications is not readily transparent, but it’s a really good gig if you can get it. Since 1997, the state has taken over nearly 20 districts through the conservatorship program with mixed, but mostly poor, results. Real improvement in our public schools has only been evident in those districts that possess a strong tax base and community leadership committed to education. Without help from the state, it’s tough on the schools districts, the families who care and the children.

The legislative leadership has been very kind to a variety of interest groups at the expense of our public schools, according to MAEP supporters. In the past several years, hundreds of millions in tax dollars have been funneled to designated industries, mall developers, specialized construction projects, and tax breaks for private groups and businesses. The Mississippi Development Authority has been flush. As a result, they have been doing their job to attract businesses to our state, quite a very good job in recent years. But when companies don’t have even “Adequate” public schools, to offer their potential employees, you have to question what kind of long-term commitment those companies will have to the people and communities in our state.

The best economic tool in any community, but particularly for towns in Mississippi desperate for good jobs, is a well managed and well funded public school.

Ronnie Musgrove, the former one-term governor of Mississippi and the attorney leading the charge on behalf of the school districts in this lawsuit hopes to force the state to repay over $1.5 billion it has shorted the school school districts since 2008.

Those who criticize Musgrove’s efforts argue the lawsuit is a stunt at best and a money grab at worst. For Musgrove this is probably personal. Musgrove has stated that he wrote the Mississippi Adequate Education Program while serving as a state senator. Although according to documents, Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory is credited for authoring Senate Bill 2649 that was eventually signed into law. As a lieutenant governor, Musgrove marshaled the votes necessary to override Kirk Fordice’s veto of MAEP. While serving as governor, Musgrove “adequately” funded the Mississippi’s Adequate Education Program only for the 2004 fiscal year, as part of his re-election campaign in 2003.

But before we get cynical about Musgrove, Haley Barbour did the same thing in 2007 as part of his re-election campaign, fully funding MAEP for the 2008 fiscal year. It’s the only two times that the state has met its commitment to its public schools. Gives a clear idea of how the leadership in both of Mississippi’s political parties view the importance of education. Our children’s education and our future has been an ugly political game for far too long in this state.

In the past legislative session, there were $500 million in new monies for the state, $400 million of those new monies went into the Rainy Day Fund under the direction of our legislative leaders, while our public schools budgets were underfunded according to the MAEP formula by $257 million.

If our legislative leaders are not going to adequately fund public education when the state has the money, will they ever?

If none of them are going to be a champion for our public schools, then somebody ought to take them to court.

» David Dallas, a regular columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal, is a political writer. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.

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