JACKSON — Supporters of a constitutional amendment to guarantee “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools” in Mississippi have less than two weeks to turn in signatures if they want their referendum on the 2015 general election ballot.
State law says they must turn in at least 107,216 signatures of registered voters at least 90 days before the start of the 2015 Legislature to put the referendum on the ballot for the 2015 general election. Supporters must collect at least 21,443 from each of the state’s five former congressional districts as they existed in 2000 by Oct. 8 to meet their stated objective.
Backers with the Better Schools, Better Jobs political action committee say they’ve collected 183,000 signatures so far. Not all of those will get certified as registered voters, though. Some people sign petitions more than once, some signatures are illegible and some people don’t show up as registered.
Spokeswoman Patsy Brumfield said that county circuit clerks are, on average, approving nearly 69 percent of signatures that are turned in, which should put the group on track if the geographic split is even.
“We knew some of these signatures would be rejected; that’s why we knew we had to collect so many,” Brumfield said. “We’re fully confident we will have many more certified than 108,000.”
If the group doesn’t make the deadline, it could still keep collecting signatures and put the question on the 2016 ballot. The yearlong petition window runs until April 30, 2015, although that would be too late to force a vote that year.
The referendum aims to prevent lawmakers from underfunding public schools, after a seven-year period in which the state has fallen $1.53 billion short of meeting the amount mandated by its school funding formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. During that time, most districts have increased local property taxes and cut teachers.
Referendum supporters, a group called Better Schools Better Jobs, say their approach is a better way to solve school underfunding than a lawsuit spearheaded by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. That suit aims to recover past underfunding and prevent future shortfalls, while the referendum only aims at the future.
Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, have expressed concern with the proposal. Bryant has said an additional mandate could increase uncertainty with the state budget, while Reeves has said it could wrongly transfer spending power from the Legislature to judges, because people could sue to enforce the referendum.
Better Schools, Better Jobs has raised nearly $1.35 million from its January incorporation through July, according to state campaign finance reports. Almost all the money has come from two nonprofit groups — $480,000 from the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation and $864,500 from the Washington, D.C.-based New Venture Fund. Better Schools, Better Jobs spent about $820,000 through July.
The initiative has to be submitted 90 days before the Legislature meets because lawmakers may choose to propose an alternative version of the initiative. If they do so, both the original language and the Legislature’s language would appear. Voters can choose one or the other, or reject both.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he thinks “there may be some discussion” about an alternate version. He said he’s concerned about using the word “efficient,” and also thinks the phrase that expressly gives chancery courts the power to enforce the law is unnecessary.
“You want to make sure you get the wording right, because the words mean everything to a court,” Tollison said.
In some areas, supporters appear to be in good shape. For example, the DeSoto County Circuit Clerk’s office says that county has certified nearly 10,000 signatures, more than 45 percent of what’s needed in the former 1st Congressional District.
But high rejection rates could make it a tight squeeze for organizers meet requirement. In Rankin County, 5,219 signatures have been certified, but 4,154 have been rejected.
The group has focused most of its efforts on using volunteers to collect signatures at school functions — graduations, football games, parent meetings. But the organization has also paid canvassers to collect signatures. Earlier this month, Better Schools Better Jobs emailed an appeal to superintendents in the former 3rd District, including Rankin County, the Golden Triangle and Meridian, urging them to redouble efforts.
“We need your leadership or we will fall short of getting enough signatures to get on the ballot for full MAEP funding,” Brumfield wrote in a Sept. 2 email. “I know you understand how terrible that would be.”