Proposed K-12, College Cuts Draw Fire in Mississippi

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Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s plan to help close a yawning state budget deficit by scaling back funding for K-12 schools, consolidating districts, merging historically black colleges, and making other major education cuts is getting considerable pushback from lawmakers and education organizations.

Gov. Barbour, a Republican who is prominent on the national political scene, seeks to cut K-12 education costs by 9.4 percent, in part by consolidating the state’s 152 school districts into 100. The state enrolls nearly 500,000 public school students.

The change would save about $65 million, which would help bridge a gap in funding after the state has used up its share of federal economic-stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the governor wrote in his budget proposal.

He also recommends a 10.9 percent cut, or a reduction of $327 million, in state aid for K-12 education through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s formula for distributing money to districts.

And he has proposed suspending for one year a pay raise the state’s teachers receive automatically based on years of service, for a projected savings of $18 million.

Those recommendations would help alleviate a projected $715 million budget deficit in fiscal 2011, on a total budget of $5.5 billion, Gov. Barbour wrote, of which education has allotted about $3 billion. The budget situation will be even worse in fiscal 2012, he warned, when the deficit is projected to reach $1.2 billion.

“Some of the choices we need to make are going to be unpopular,” Mr. Barbour wrote. Since education constitutes about 60 percent of the state’s spending, “education at all levels must produce a large portion of the savings. .. I am convinced that this can be done without hurting the quality of the education our students receive.”

And he urged districts to tap their emergency coffers. “Now is the time to reduce administrative costs and for local districts to use their ‘rainy day funds,’ just as the state is drawing down on its rainy-day fund,” he said.

Districts Already Squeezed

But some school districts simply don’t have enough extra cash to make up for such a severe cut in state aid, said state Rep. Cecil Brown, a Democrat and the chairman of the House education committee. Lawmakers are scheduled to release their own fiscal 2011 budget proposal Dec. 15, in advance of the legislative session, which begins in January.

“Our school districts just don’t have enough reserves to be able to sustain that kind of cut,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown also expressed dismay at the governor’s consolidation plan, which the lawmaker said isn’t likely to yield the kinds of savings projected, since it would mostly save on administrative costs. And he is concerned that the plan doesn’t allow for local input.

“He didn’t identify any districts he wants to consolidate,” he said of Gov. Barbour’s proposal. Mr. Brown was especially displeased with the proposal to allow an independent agency to make the consolidation decisions.

“That’s completely taking it away from local people. … I don’t think it’s going to pass,” he said.

Mr. Brown’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Videt Carmichael, the Republican who chairs the education committee in that chamber, agreed that the consolidation plan wouldn’t reduce costs to the extent that Gov. Barbour has suggested.

“I just don’t see the savings that he sees,” Mr. Carmichael said.

But the senator said he still plans to take a look at the governor’s proposals—and any other ideas for cost savings—because of the dismal fiscal forecast.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “We’re looking at everything; everything is on the table,” including education.

Still, Mr. Carmichael said he expects that the final spending package will have “a different face” from that of the governor’s initial plan, although the senator wasn’t sure yet what would be revised.

Alternative Savings

Some education groups in the state are urging lawmakers to look beyond cuts to help spare already cash-strapped school districts.

“If you cut [education funding] today, you could affect the future of the children in the state for two decades,” said Sam Bounds, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. “We think there may be other opportunities for cost savings.”

Mr. Bounds said lawmakers may want to consider the “nasty word”: taxes. The legislature should examine whether there are “some specialized taxes that could be levied for a short time, instead of cutting for tomorrow what could affect a thousand tomorrows,” he said.

Gov. Barbour also is recommending that the Mississippi School of the Arts, a statewide residential magnet school, be merged into another magnet, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, to saving at least $1 million.

And he’s proposed merging three historically black universities—Alcorn State, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley State—into a single “premier university” to be based at the existing campuses.

But that proposal isn’t being embraced by key lawmakers.

Rep. Kelvin Buck, a Democrat who chairs the House universities and colleges committee, immediately dismissed the merger plan as “too far-reaching, a knee-jerk overreaction to the economic conditions that we are in right now.”

The proposed collegiate consolidation—and resulting cuts—could harm Mississippi’s economic future, he said.

“Anything we do,” Mr. Buck said, “that diminishes opportunity for education to me will be counterproductive to our long-term economic situation.”

Vol. 29, Issue 14, Page 16

Published in Print: December 9, 2009, as Mississippi Governor Drawing Opposition On School-Cuts Plan
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