September 19, 2013 10:01:45 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi education officials are making their legally mandated push to support the state's school funding formula, but it's not clear they'll be any more successful next fiscal year than in other recent years.
State Department of Education officials made their pitch to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Wednesday.
Lawmakers would have to add $264.5 million to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in the budget year beginning July 1 to provide what the formula calls an adequate amount of aid to local school districts. According to preliminary estimates, the gap would be down from $293 million in the current budget.
The total amount demanded by the formula has declined for the first time since it was created, because district budgets were cut, leading them to spend less money during the recession, education officials reiterated.
State school board Chairman Wayne Gann of Corinth thanked lawmakers for the extra money that they spent on improving reading instruction and creating a pilot program of prekindergarten classes for the first time. But he said it's time for lawmakers to recognize that schools have struggled due to funding cutbacks
"School districts have made it through these past few years with few resources. They've gone through hard times. We need to provide adequate funding for textbooks, technology and other instructional materials," Gann said. "As the economy changes, then the question becomes, do we have the political will to adequately fund education?"
That pitch was echoed by interim state Superintendent Lynn House.
"As revenues are improving, we think it's time to determine the strategy needed to fully fund MAEP, and we think we can determine through the legislative body those strategies," she said.
Some outside groups are gearing up for a funding push when lawmakers return in January. A small group of protesters associated with the Children's Defense Fund and Better Choices for Mississippi carried signs outside the Woolfolk State Office Building, where budget hearings are held Wednesday, calling for more money.
But the money picture was clouded by announcements Tuesday that the state prison, mental health and Medicaid agencies are already projecting a collective $100 million shortfall for the current budget year. If those figures hold true, lawmakers will have to backfill that hole before discussing more money for any other purpose.
Some Republicans also prefer to focus new money on free-standing programs instead of the funding formula. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, raised the case of improved performance in the Hollandale and Benton County school districts.
"It begs the question: leadership or money?" Frierson said. "Because that's not supposed to happen in Hollandale or Benton county, if you look at the socio-economic status, without full funding of MAEP."
House and Gann said those districts were led by creative superintendents who have found ways to scrape up more money. They agree that leadership is needed to improving performance. But Gann warned, "You see that some of those best superintendents are struggling now with the resources we have."
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves raised an issue that has been bubbling among Republicans in recent months -- an increase in the share of money spent on administration by districts studied to calculate MAEP.
"The largest increase is in administration," Reeves said. "The smallest increase, as the formula suggests, is in instruction. That gives some of us less and less confidence in the formula."
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