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Miss. Educators Are Rebuffed in Effort To Reclaim $30 Million in School Aid

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Mississippi educators, who have mounted a major effort to win restoration of $30 million in state school aid cut last year, have fallen short in their first test of legislative strength on the issue.

A Senate amendment seeking to link the return of the funds to an unrelated $5-million bond-repayment appropriations bill failed on a 28-to-22 vote last month.

The sponsor of the attempt, Senator Hob Bryan, said the fact that the amendment, an unconventional procedure designed to draw attention to the funding issue, managed to garner 22 votes was an indication of the depth of support in the legislature for restoring the money to schools.

Nevertheless, observers suggest that it will be quite difficult to return the withheld funds will be returned this year. Even if the legislature passes a bill reinstating the $30 million, the state's new Republican Governor, Kirk Fordice, has pledged numerous times that he would veto such an action.

Any remaining interest in returning the funds received a serious blow last week, moreover, when the legislative budget commission announced that the state would have to cut an additional $75 million in spending. The announcement has "put a great cloud over the situation," according to Senator Ronnie Musgrove, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Many District Deficits

Currently, 24 of Mississippi's 149 school districts are running deficits, compared to 11 or 12 last year, according to Judy Rhodes, the associate state superintendent for administration and finance.

The $30 million in cuts is "very critical," Ms. Rhodes said, adding that the fact that the reductions were ordered on nearly the last day of the previous fiscal year has left many districts in crisis.

Actual losses to education total over $46 million, including $2.5 million in excess fuel costs triggered by the Persian Gulf war and $1.5 million in homestead-reimbursement exemptions, according to Ms. Rhodes.

In addition, $11 million was cut from programs that were to be replaced by the unexpectedly terminated school-reform program launched by the previous Governor, Ray Mabus. Mr. Mabus's reform plan was passed by the legislature in 1990 but died because he and lawmakers could not come to an agreement on a new source of funding for it.

In an effort to persuade Governor Fordice and nudge legislators on the funding issue, the state parent teacher association recently spearheaded a letter-writing campaign by Mississippi children. Leaders of the group dropped off over 60,000 handwritten missives at the State Capitol last month and expect to mail in 40,000 more.

Fund-Stretching Urged

But whatever the resolution of the current controversy, Mr. Fordice and the state's education community appear headed for continued conflict over education funding.

Mr. Fordice does not feel that additional state aid is needed to enable schools to achieve the six national education goals. Instead, he believes that districts should be encouraged to "be creative with stretching funds," according to John Arledge, the Governors assistant press secretary.

But many educators think there is a critical need to find a stable source of education funding in the property poor state.

The Mississippi Association of Educators has advocated that the legislature and the Governor "bite the bullet" and develop "visionary methods of trying to solve the funding deficit." The group has set forth its own slate of funding alternatives, including adjustments in sales-tax exemptions and holding a referendum to institute a state lottery, video gambling, or other revenue-generating devices.

In light of current problems, State Superintendent of Education Richard Thompson has expressed concern that the progress achieved since Mississippi's landmark 1982 school-reform law will now be lost.

"The infrastructure is continuing to erode," Mr. Thompson noted. "I'm afraid ... we're going to have some real setbacks in areas where we've made a lot of progress."

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