AP analysis: Plan boosts 80 percent of Mississippi schools

By: 
JEFF AMY
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) โ€” Lawmakers are considering a school funding proposal that could send more state money to nearly 80 percent of Mississippi's school districts, according to an Associated Press review.

For some superintendents, the money sounds like a godsend โ€” a way to hire more teachers, pay them more, replace rickety buses and leaking roofs, maybe even cut property taxes. But much of the new money would come from requiring property-rich districts to contribute more money to the state formula. The 20 percent of districts that would lose money are gearing up for a fight, saying decreased funding could mean teacher layoffs or higher taxes.

The findings come from calculations done by the AP using a proposal made by a consulting firm hired by top Republican lawmakers. Until now, the debate has been muted because EdBuild, the New Jersey-based nonprofit hired as a consultant, didn't provide statewide numbers or a district-by-district breakdown when it presented its report Jan. 16.

No calculations are written in stone yet, and lawmakers are likely to make changes. But the AP's calculations reveal a bottom line for the state and each district publicly for the first time. They show overall funding would rise by $195 million. Surprisingly, in a climate where the state is facing budget cuts, EdBuild proposes a $75 million increase in state funding, 3 percent more than current state formula spending of $2.3 billion. The increase in local tax contributions would pull in the other $120 million .

EdBuild Executive Director Rebecca Sibilia reviewed AP's calculations and said they are accurate assuming lawmakers make no changes, but cautioned that some changes are almost certain .

Dogged by poverty and racial inequality, Mississippi has the lowest academic performance in the nation as ranked by Education Week. Even with a higher-than-average school tax rate among states, the state's overall poverty means it raises among the lowest amounts of money. That equals low teacher salaries, few advanced courses in rural high schools, and aging buildings.

The current formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, was supposed to ease those problems when it was passed in 1997. But it's been a long-running source of political conflict. The current formula legally requires Mississippi to spend a certain amount each year, aiming to provide midlevel funding. But lawmakers have only fully funded it twice, and have spent $1.9 billion less than mandated levels since 2009. Adjusting for inflation, today's spending is 12 percent lower than its peak in 2008.

Republicans criticize the current formula as outmoded and say schools waste too much money on administrators. Political clashes climaxed with a 2015 referendum seeking to amend the state Constitution to require full funding. Voters rejected the amendment at the behest of Republicans who said it undermined the Legislature's right to control spending.

Now, Republicans want to change the formula. Top lawmakers hired EdBuild, saying they liked the nonprofit's approach of tying dollars to the needs of individual students.

State spending under EdBuild's proposal wouldn't reach the amount called for by the adequate education program, but half of individual districts would reach or surpass that level.

AP shows the biggest winner overall would be DeSoto County, with the state's largest school district gaining almost $18 million in state aid .

Wilkinson County Superintendent Kimberly Jackson said she'd like to use some of her district's projected $900 more per student to pay to retain teachers and staff. She said good employees are hard to keep in the remote southwest corner of Mississippi.

Union Superintendent Lundy Brantley said he'd use the cash to hire more reading instructors, improve computers, and add another prekindergarten class.

Brantley said Union, with one of the smallest tax bases in the state, could also cut property tax rates. He's worried, though, about how a tax cut would look if taxes rise elsewhere. "I don't think that's going to go over too well," Brantley said.

The biggest loser overall would be Pascagoula-Gautier, where state aid would drop more than $14 million. Lowndes County would be another of the 30 districts contributing more local money and getting less state aid. Superintendent Lynn Wright said Lowndes County has started a $75 million construction program, and plans to use current revenue for part of the costs.

"It would either result in a dramatic cut in staff, or a dramatic increase in local taxes," he said.

Sibilia said taxpayers elsewhere in the state are subsidizing property-rich districts that can afford to pay more. But Wright said Lowndes County promised voters it wouldn't increase taxes .

Madison County, a suburban Republican heartland, would take a $9 million hit. Superintendent Ronnie McGehee said that if lawmakers adopt EdBuild's proposal, they need to phase it in or provide extra aid, noting state law limits how much districts can raise property taxes each year. Sibilia said other states provide money to help districts faced with steep tax hikes.

McGehee questioned the decision to put 41 percent of formula spending on the backs of local taxpayers, up from the current statewide limit of 27 percent. Choctaw County, even after aid for being rural, would have to fund 89 percent.

"Whose responsibility is it to fund education?" McGehee asked. "Is it the locals, or is it the state ?"

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