Funding formula a mixed bag for districts

Students creating the phases of mitosis with Oreos in Biology I (Photo by Steve Rogers/DTL)
Staff Writer

The region's pioneering Early College High School and most school districts in the region would get a financial shot in the arm, but two -- West Point and Columbus -- could lose under the new K-12 education funding formula approved by the state House last week.

And the measure still faces some hurdles in the Senate, according to one area lawmaker.

According to unofficial preliminary numbers, funding for Lowndes County schools would increase more than $1 million while Starkville-Oktibbeha County would get an additional $617,000. Columbus city schools would lose about $212,000 and West Point about $386,000 because of a history of declining enrollment.

Overall, 24 of the state's 142 school districts will lose state funds based on preliminary estimates under the formula.

Some losses could be made up by multipliers for low-income students, special education, non-English speakers and gifted programs. Extremely rural students also would get extra money.

"We haven't confirmed any numbers, but any loss of revenue puts a strain on the backs of the local people," West Point Schools Superintendent Burnell McDonald said. "The only way to cover those kinds of numbers is with personnel and we can't continue to improve student learning with fewer teachers."

While it passed the House largely along party lines, some senators still have some questions.

"I know I want to look at the numbers some more and ask some questions," said Republican state Sen. Chuck Younger from Columbus.

Like the old formula, which was often criticized by its opponents as flawed, the question with the new plan remains whether the Legislature will actually fund it and where it will find the money.
"I think it's going to come down to that," Jill Savely, the principal at the four-county Early College High School at East Mississippi Community College, said of the funding question. "The funding is the big question among a ton of questions I have."

The Early College High School is in its third year with students from Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Noxubee counties. While Columbus and Lowndes school districts combine to make up 80 of the school's 171 students, 39 come from West Point and 28 come from Starkville.

The school, which is a partnership among the five school districts, EMCC and Mississippi State, currently receives $5,500 per student. Under the new formula, it would get as much as $6,200 -- $4,800 as the base per student and $1,400 for each high school student.

"If it stays the way it is and if it is fully funded, it would give us a little more. Again, we all have lots of questions," said Savely.

As originally drafted, the formula had a clause that could have hit hard school districts that encourage dual enrollment in community college and four-year programs. It said that even if a student was enrolled in one three-hour community college class, all the money the local school district receives for that student would go to the community college rather than the local district.

That could have added up.

For instance, West Point has 41 students who are taking classes at EMCC and getting high school and college credit.

The language was changed in the version that passed the House, leaving the money split up to the existing arrangements between each school district and community college.

While educators have their annual worries over state funding, Savely and the ECHS staff are gearing up to recruit their next group of freshmen. When these ninth-graders enter class this fall, they will set the stage for the first batch of seniors to graduate in May 2019.

The school now is accepting applications and has scheduled some information sessions for interested parents.

Applications are due Feb. 28.

The Starkville information session is 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29 at The Mill conference center. The Lowndes County session for Columbus and Lowndes County students is 6 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Cochran Ballroom on the campus of Mississippi University for Women. The first session is 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25 at the Civic Center in Macon in Noxubee County.
The West Point session has not yet been scheduled, Savely said, but will be in early February.