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MSMS reserve fund reaching critical point

 

Germain McConnell, executive director of Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, talks with Roger Burlingame, right, after speaking during the Columbus Rotary Club's meeting at Lion Hills Center in Columbus on Tuesday.

Germain McConnell, executive director of Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, talks with Roger Burlingame, right, after speaking during the Columbus Rotary Club's meeting at Lion Hills Center in Columbus on Tuesday. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

Zack Plair

 

 

Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science could be only a year away from drastically shrinking its operations, according to the school's executive director Germain McConnell. 

 

MSMS, housed on the Mississippi University for Women campus, is a residential, state-funded school that aims to educate gifted 11th- and 12th-grade students from across Mississippi with emphasis in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The school is tuition-free but charges $500 per semester for room and board to students who don't qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

 

McConnell told Columbus Rotarians Tuesday at Lion Hills Center the Legislature appropriated $168,400 less to MSMS for 2017-18 than it did for the previous year. The school, he said, already operates at a deficit of between $100,000 and $150,000 annually, making up for the shortfall with money from its reserves. 

 

The reserve fund, which McConnell said has dwindled to roughly $1.2 million, is meant for emergencies and facility upgrades instead of covering operational deficits. If the fund drops to less than $1 million, he told The Dispatch it could mean cuts in faculty, and by extension, a "drastic" reduction in the number of students MSMS can admit. 

 

"If something catastrophic happens to our facilities, that (reserve) money is all we have to deal with that," he said. 

 

MSMS absorbed most of this year's appropriations cut by slashing three non-teaching staff positions, McConnell said. He and others are now more fervently advocating for the school in hopes that legislators will spare it from future cuts -- and maybe even restore funding to at least its 2016-17 level. 

 

The average ACT score for MSMS students in 2016 (28.3) was 7.5 points higher than the national average, and the 2016 graduating class racked up more than $20 million in scholarship offers, according to data McConnell presented to Rotarians. 

 

But as achievement numbers rise, state funding for the school has consistently dropped -- from roughly $4.9 million in 2008 to $4.3 million this school year, McConnell said. While MSMS has 300 beds for students, enrollment is now capped at 235. 

 

"People here (in Columbus) understand the value we add to the community, and we're hoping they help us get our message to the ears of the people who make the (budget) decisions," McConnell told The Dispatch after the Rotary meeting. "This school is a beacon of light for the state of Mississippi. We've utilized our resources wisely. If we want to continue doing what we do and offering those opportunities to students in the future, the state of Mississippi needs to begin investing in MSMS a lot more." 

 

 

 

Contrasting legislator viewpoints 

 

District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) understands McConnell's position, admitting he's even sympathetic to it. But with the state facing declining revenue each year, he said it's difficult to argue for more funding -- or an exemption from budget cuts -- for a school that only educates 235 students per year. 

 

He said other state agencies, pointing specifically to mental health, are also hurting from budget cuts, as are K-12 schools across Mississippi that already receive less money per student because they aren't residential. 

 

"We're committed to MSMS, but when you start comparing it to some of the other functions of government, it gets hard to equate them," he said. "It makes it difficult to justify giving 200 kids an extra leg up to other schools that already don't get the same per-pupil appropriation." 

 

Instead of MSMS asking for more state money, Chism suggested parents chip in more toward room and board -- an amount he said might "more accurately" reflect the true cost of living on the campus. 

 

"We're benefiting the parents by providing their children with a prep school education that affords them scholarships and (often) free rides (in college)," he said. "...You can pay now, or you can pay later." 

 

Another Columbus Republican legislator, District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, looks at the MSMS plight very differently. In fact, he called funding for MSMS the "highest priority" in the state's K-12 budget and supports trying to find a way to raise its appropriation. 

 

"MSMS does well, it has a good reputation and it accomplishes its mission," Smith said. "The same cannot be said for all state agencies. 

 

"More practically, when it comes to MSMS, there's really nothing more to cut," he added. "If you cut them any more, you're going to start cutting muscle and bone. I'm not sure all state agencies are at that point."

 

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.

 

 

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