By STEVEN NALLEY
Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway addressed many of the concerns State Auditor Stacey Pickering raised about the Mississippi Adequate Education Program Wednesday, but he acknowledged that MAEP is imperfect and may need refining.
Pickering told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday that he could not verify numbers school districts sent to the Mississippi Department of Education to receive MAEP funds. One factor used to calculate MAEP funds is average daily attendance (ADA) by students in school districts, and Holloway said ADA is one of Pickering’s central concerns.
“His allegation is that people are cooking the books, and a kid may come in and only be there a portion of the day (and still get counted toward ADA),” Holloway said. “We require that a student be there at least half of the day in order for it to be counted. I think he’s also concerned that there may be schools out there that count students when they’re not at school. We conduct attendance every period at the school and track that closely.”
Holloway said he understood Pickering’s concern, and he suggested that MDE enact a statewide policy on counting ADA. Rob Logan, SSD comptroller, said he, too, saw ADA as a state-level issue.
“They would need to tell the school districts, ‘This is how we want you to count it,’” Logan said. “It probably wouldn’t be easy, that’s for sure.”
Another element of the MAEP formula is the number of students a school district has enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program. Pickering reported Tuesday that he could not audit this federal program, and Holloway said Pickering also accused schools of falsifying data on this front.
“He indicated schools just write every child as (being on) free and reduced lunch, and that’s just not correct,” Holloway said. “There’s an application form for free and reduced lunch that goes into a process where they’re approved or not approved. Those files are kept at the district office.”
Holloway said he does acknowledge that it would be difficult to audit and verify the incomes of families to ensure every student enrolled in the program meets the requirements, but he believes it is possible to audit the program at the school level. When he was superintendent in Bulloch County, Ga., he said his school district faced the latter type of audit.
In general, Holloway said he objected to Pickering’s implication that schools were receiving more money from the state than they needed. MAEP is the primary source of funding for the SSD and other school districts, he said, and if anything, they need more money, not less.
“We’re short $9 million of where we were five years ago because of cuts in the funding formula,” Holloway said. “Many states have issues with their funding formulas, but I would also say that any state funding formula should be easy to understand for average adults.”
Mississippi’s funding formula was more clear and comprehensible before the state legislature enacted MAEP in 1997, Holloway said. He is a Mississippi native who first left the state in 1990, he said, and he remembers the formula being clearer at that time.
Specifically, the state requires school districts to disclose the number of students in each of several categories, Holloway said, such as special education, vocational and gifted students, as well as breakdowns by grade. When the state responded to this disclosure with funding, he said, it used to break down funding into each of these categories, because the state allocates extra funding for some categories of students, such as special education students and gifted students. Now that Holloway has returned to Mississippi, he said, state funds no longer come with that breakdown.
“What we get back from the state is just a lump sum. We’re not able to see how much is allocated for each one of the categories,” Holloway said. “It makes it hard to see how we earned our units. I don’t know if we’re earning enough gifted dollars to pay for gifted (programs); I don’t know if we’re earning enough special education dollars to pay for special education.”
Despite his own issues with MAEP, Holloway said it does not need to be repealed or replaced.
“’Refined’ would be a better word,” Holloway said. “I’d like to have a better understanding of how schools earn the dollars rather than having a pot of funds and not knowing (how it was calculated).”