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Analysis: Challenges loom large in rewriting funding formula

JEFF AMY

JEFF AMY

An effort to change or rewrite Mississippi’s school funding formula kicks off in earnest this week as representatives of EdBuild arrive in Jackson.

House and Senate leaders hired the New Jersey nonprofit to advise them on possible changes to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. There are lots of challenges that must be surmounted in any serious rewrite, and it seems unlikely that the two months that EdBuild has been given to prepare recommendations will be enough time to gather any meaningful public input or build any consensus around changes.

Republican leadership could attempt to push a big change that affects 500,000 children through the Legislature next year at the same time they’re trying to rewrite the state’s tax code and raise funding for transportation. That’s an ambitious slate, considering gas tax proposals alone last year sparked a GOP revolt that sank the issue, despite a push from business groups.

The immediate reaction following the announcement by people who have traditionally pushed for more money — looking for ways to attack EdBuild and CEO Rebecca Sibilia — shows the polarization and distrust that’s built up around the issue, as lawmakers have repeatedly failed to reach the funding levels demanded by the current formula.

There was also a quick chorus proclaiming that the current formula is a failure, but that’s far from clear. Without the political pressure of the funding target, lawmakers might have spent even less on schools over time. In the current year’s budget, for example, it would have eased a lot of pain if lawmakers hadn’t held funding level for MAEP.

It’s also unclear whether there will be any role for the state Board of Education or the Mississippi Department of Education besides providing data. It doesn’t help that Todd Ivey is retiring from the department. He knows more about the internal workings of MAEP than anyone else and is trusted by lawmakers.

Here’s a look at some other tough issues that will have to be confronted for a rewrite to go forward:

RESLICING THE PIE

When the current formula was written, part of the deal was that no district would lose money. It was possible to ensure that because MAEP called for a substantial increase in funding. Even districts where enrollment was falling got “hold harmless” provisions that persisted until just a few years ago, when lawmakers terminated them.

“There does need to be some consideration of districts that would be impacted,” Sibilia said.

ADMINISTRATION

House and Senate leaders have said that they’re motivated to change the formula to reduce the share of money that goes to administration, which in Mississippi terms means school principals, assistant principals and central office workers. But the current formula is set up to send a lump sum to districts that they can spend as they see fit, as long as districts meet state accreditation standards. Mississippi previously had a funding formula that required districts to spend certain amounts on buses, books and other functions, and the state could go back to controlling spending that way. But legislators hired the wrong people if that’s their plan — Sibilia said she and EdBuild support local control over spending.

LOCAL TAXES

Another part of the debate could be whether some districts will be allowed to raise property taxes without calling elections. Right now, districts can raise taxes incrementally without a vote up to 55 mills. Beyond that, a referendum is required, and districts rarely seek that option. The most recent data from last year showed 29 districts are at or above the cap. Another 23 districts were within three mills of the cap.

» Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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