What’s the story with the arts school bill?

February 3, 2009



JACKSON -- The bill to move the state arts school to Mississippi University for Women failed last week because most House members didn''t want to turn their backs on a commitment to Brookhaven and the millions of dollars the state spent establishing the school there just a few years ago. 


The House voted 73-43 Friday against moving the Mississippi School of the Arts to MUW, home of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. 


A large contingent of House Democrats broke away from their leaders and joined the Republican bloc to defeat the bill. 


While the bill was pushed by Democratic leaders as a cost-saving measure, most of the House''s 48 fiscally conservative Republicans voted against it. 


They heard a plea from Brookhaven''s sole state representative -- GOP lawmaker Becky Currie -- not to uproot the school from her hometown. 


Currie said MSA students were in tears about the prospect of their school being consolidated with MSMS. She said they enjoy the MSA''s status as a stand-alone institution and could fall through the cracks if moved. 


"These kids may get lost in the system," she said. 


The arts school is a "beacon of hope," said Rep. David Meyers, D-McComb, who lives near Brookhaven. "We don''t have much. And this school -- we''re proud of it." 


Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said moving MSA to Columbus would be a betrayal to Brookhaven, where people there had worked hard to persuade the Legislature in 1999 to establish the school at the old Whitworth campus, a now-closed private college for women. 


"Vote to keep the promise that we have made," Formby told the House of Representatives during Friday''s debate. 


Such pleas to keep MSA in Brookhaven proved effective in defeating the bill, said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, one of only five GOP members voting to move MSA to MUW. 


The vote showed how reluctant some legislators are about making painful budget cuts, he said. 


"Every time you start cutting, you''re going to be stepping on somebody''s toes," Chism said. "We''re going to cut things and they''re not going to be popular." 


Forty Republicans voted against the legislation and were joined by 33 Democrats. 


The Democrats bucked there leaders in voting against House Bill 1555, which was pushed by House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, and House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, with the support of House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. 


As the state copes with a worsening economic crisis, Stringer and Brown said, it could reduce the $3 million a year spent on MSA by using MUW facilities with the math-science school. 


However, arguments were made that relocating MSA to MUW would not save that much. 


"This is a minuscule amount of money compared to the total state budget," said House Public Health and Welfare Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. 


Holland acknowledged he originally wanted the arts school at MUW in 1999, but he argued Friday to keep it in Brookhaven because it''s so rooted there. 


In urging the House to approve his bill to move MSA to MUW, Stringer said, "That''s where it should have been to start with." 


He said the Legislature got snookered into approving MSA''s creation in 1999 not sure it would be so expensive. "We really didn''t know what it was going to cost," Stringer said. 


While more than $20 million has been spent to modernize the old college campus for MSA, millions of dollars more are needed for construction projects, Stringer said. 


The state schools of the arts and math and science are for high school juniors and seniors. MSA has about 120 students. MSMS has about 210 students. It gets about $5 million a year from the state.