Legislator disputes education funding shortage

From left, state Rep. Jeff Smith, state Rep. Gary Chism, Sen. Angela Turner Ford and Rep. Cheikh Taylor listen to a question during Thursday night’s forum. 
Legislator disputes education funding shortage
Staff Writer

One of the state Legislature’s most influential members disputes contentions the Mississippi Adequate Education [program specifically and education in general is under-funded in the state.

“I went to the Legislature in 1992. We had $958 million going to K-12. I’m on the budget committee, and yesterday the number was $2 billion. Does that sound like it’s been cut?” state Rep. and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith told a forum of about 30 people Thursday night in Columbus.

“Since 1992 the K-12 districts in Mississippi have lost 51,000 children. Have you heard that from the Mississippi Department of Education? In the last five years we have lost 22,000 people in K-12. We do not fully fund MAEP because we spend $253 million outside of MAEP,” the Columbus Republican continued in an explanation he gives frequently.

The forum was hosted by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce. Smith was joined by state Reps. Gary Chism and Chiehk Taylor and Sen. Angela Turner Ford as well as education administrators from the Columbus and Lowndes County schools and private schools.
Sen. Chuck Younger had a prior engagement.

The group answered questions for almost 90 minutes about everything from teacher pay raises and funding for the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science to ways to promote science and math programs.
“MDE and some of the teachers’ unions say the legislature does not fund education. B.S. That is not true,” Smith said, continuing his response to the funding issue.

“We do not fully fund MAEP because there are other parts of education, teacher pay, for instance. We are going to give a pay raise. Probably between $50 million and $60 million, probably spread over two to three years.

“But guess what? We’ve got state employees who haven’t had a raise in 10 years. We’re at a function tonight for K-12, but we need to be honest. If it takes more money, we’re not going to do all of it. We have scarce dollars. We have increased teacher pay four times since I’ve been in the Legislature, and we should increase it every year. Teachers ought to make as much as doctors and lawyers,” Smith stated emphatically.

Funding for MSMS also sparked debate.

“MSMS has been impacted greatly by funding challenges,” said Suzanne Bean, who moderated the event. “The school is bright spot in our state, however enrollment has steadily decreased over the past decade due to funding constraints. What can we do to turn the downward spiral around?”

MSMS has around 300 beds, but only about 235 students. It’s budget hovers around $4 million; by comparison, in 2008 it was $4.9 million.
“MSMS is in my district, and I’m real concerned with it,” Smith said. “We’ve got $150,000 in the new budget for MSMS. There again, the premise is that we’re cutting. We’re not cutting. MSMS is getting more money unless the full body votes against it.”

Taylor also weighed in.

“It’s fifth or sixth in the nation as far as high schools, and has the number one faculty in the country,” he said. “I asked (Director Dr. Germain McConnell) what it would take to go from good to great, and he said about $1 million.

That just doesn’t sound like a lot of money to move from number six to number one. We’re going to have to come up with some creative ways to do it.”

Taylor also called the current state of the dormitories “a deterrent” to new students.
“Some kids are used to nice facilities and they’re scared away by the condition of the dorms,” he said.

While Younger couldn’t attend, he did say Friday that every taxpayer and legislator must be realistic.
“Sure, we’d all love to fully fund everything, but I’d love a new house but I can’t afford one.” Younger said via telephone.

“Revenues are up a little. I’m for giving teachers a pay raise as a priority. We expect them to teach our kids, to babysit our kids, they should be paid more.
“But fully funding MAEP is a dream pie in the sky. That’s just a fact. Education is going to get some more money, but we have other things we have to address, too,” Younger said.