Mississippi Reforms on Hold After Deadlock Over Funding
Mississippi educators, who left their classrooms in the spring with the promise of a $182-million, three-year reform program, will return to school in a few weeks having to pinch pennies and struggling to salvage morale, state officials say.
During a special session in June, Gov. Ray Mabus and the legislature were unable to resolve a deadlock over funding for the reform plan, which calls for initiatives ranging from dropout prevention and classroom restructuring to building projects.
Governor Mabus had proposed revenue options totaling $170 million, but remained adamantly opposed to raising taxes. And lawmakers, who resisted the Governor's call for creation of a state lottery, could agree on just $18 million in new revenue--well short of the $38 million needed for first-year funding of the reforms.
As a result, the clock ran out July 1 on prospects for implementing the reforms in the coming school year. Although the state attorney general has ruled that the law remains technically on the books, it cannot be put into effect at least until the legislature convenes next year.
Education officials said last week that the failed reform effort leaves schools in worse shape than before. Appropriations were cut by $11 million in anticipation of the bill's enactment, and teachers will return in the fall without a pay raise or benefits increase for only the second time since 1983.
"It's tough. You kind of get the feeling that we've lost momentum," said Andy Mullins, special assistant to State Superintendent of Education Richard Thompson. "We had really been gaining in certain areas against some states, and it feels like we're going to fall behind now.''
Shelving New Programs
The reform bill's defeat will force districts to shelve new programs and put off classroom repairs and replacement of old buses, Mr. Mullins said. While school officials will seek the lost $11 million when the legislature meets in January, he said, districts will have to make do until the end of the school year.
"It's really a downer after working so hard for two years," said Mr. Mullins. "Many of the programs don't cost a dollar, but they still can't be implemented."
In the Oxford schools, for example, administrators will shuffle local funds to pay for an alternative school for students with behavior problems, screening for 3- and 4-year-olds, and scaled-down versions of other new programs, according to Superintendent Bob McCord.
"We're not able to do all of the things we would like to accomplish going into the next school year," said Mr. McCord, who also serves as president of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents.
Rather than lobbying for the full reform package, he noted, superintendents will probably focus during the 1991 legislative session on a relatively small number of proposals, such as hospitalization coverage for employees, capital projects, and state-funded staffing increases.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mabus has accepted the blame for the special session stalemate, while also vowing to revive the reform package.
"It's going to happen, it's just a matter of when," said Cliff Treyens, the Governor's communications director. "There were a lot of factions and a lot of reasons why the House and Senate couldn't agree on anything."
But while Mr. Mabus will search anew for a consensus funding plan, he will probably continue his staunch opposition to new taxes, Mr. Treyens said. The spokesman added, however, that new revenue will be required to launch the reforms.
"We have a tight budget, and because Mississippi is a poor state, we can't dip into the well of existing funds as easily as other states,'' Mr. Treyens said. "We're back to the drawing board."