Legislators lack info about school funding revamp

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Fred Anklam Jr., Mississippi Today

Mississippi State Capitol

Thursday’s deadline for floor action on bills is looming with legislators facing a big decision on a school funding rewrite and little information at this point.

Mississippi Today surveyed House members representing school districts that could lose money under the EdBuild proposal to gain insight on how they view the prospect of possibly being asked to vote on a dummy (or placeholder) bill. That move would keep the bill alive and give legislators the ability to change the language and provide details later.

Committees in the House and Senate passed dummy bills last week for that purpose. Legislative leaders have released little information about how they might adjust provisions of the recommendations made by EdBuild, the New Jersey consulting firm.

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia was at the Capitol on Tuesday and told Mississippi Today that her firm is “still running numbers” on proposed revisions to the formula they presented.

The House of Representatives must take up House Bill 1294 by Thursday or it will die. the Senate also has to take action on its bill by Thursday to keep it alive. Passage in either chamber is all that is needed for the process to continue.

Because of the uncertainty about revisions to the EdBuild formula, no one knows what impact a potential bill would have on school districts. The Associated Press recently published a story based on EdBuild’s recommendations, showing that 31 school districts would lose funding if all of EdBuild’s recommendations were adopted by the Legislature.

Legislative leaders have said specifically that all of EdBuild’s recommendations will not be adopted, therefore undermining the validity of those projections. Yet at this point, legislators and the public have little else to go on.

Some representatives who were asked their thoughts on a new school funding formula said they believe there will be a hold harmless provision preventing school districts from being cut in the first two years of a new formula.

Aberdeen, Lowndes County School Districts

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jeffrey Smith

House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, is one of those.

“After talking with the leadership, I have a strong feeling we’ll go home with no losses (by districts)” for the first two years, Smith said.

He also said he would not vote for a “dummy” bill, indicating he would prefer a substantive bill come from the Senate to the House.

“I’d rather … look to the Senate because I think the Senate may well have a bill come over,” he said.

Biloxi School District

Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, represents Biloxi School District, which would lose around $4 million under the EdBuild scenario. DeLano says, however, that he trusts the process enough to vote for the bill, even if it is a placeholder bill.

“I’m not scared of this process … We’re voting to collaborate with more people to make sure we get a finished product that’s right,” he said. “I’m confident that if a bill passes this session we’re not going to penalize some of the best school districts in the state where a significant amount of their local budgets are derived by local support.”

Pascagoula-Gautier School District

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, said although he hasn’t seen any specifics, he would feel comfortable voting for a placeholder bill.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Read, R-Gautier

Read’s district, Pascagoula-Gautier, stands to lose the most money of any school district under the EdBuild scenario.

“I’ve stayed in constant contact with my local superintendent. He was hollering that he was going to lose $15 million, local millage was going up and they were going to have to lose teachers,” Read said.

But, Read said, he believes his district and others will be protected, and the numbers based on EdBuild’s recommendations are inaccurate.

“The false information issued was wrong because it got a lot of people all upset, but that is not what is going to transpire in the final product … I do think it will be something the Pascagoula school district can live with,” he said.

Madison County School District

Gil Ford PHotography

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison

Madison County School District could also take a big hit. But Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, declined to answer specific questions.

“I’m staying out of that,” he said when asked whether he would feel comfortable voting on a placeholder bill. “I’m not in the middle of any of that.”

Rep. Cory Wilson, R-Madison, had more to say.

While he says he favors changing the formula, he “would like to see more details before voting.”

Wilson said he’s been in contact with Madison County School District Superintendent Ronnie McGehee and parents about EdBuild’s suggestions.

“Many recommendations merit serious consideration. It’s important to remember that recommendations are just that. They won’t all be enacted,” he said. “I would strongly oppose cuts to Madison school funding anywhere near those projected in the EdBuild study. But I do not think it will come to that as we continue through this process.”

Hancock, Bay-Waveland and Pass Christian School Districts

Rep. David Baria, D-Pass Christian, and many other Democrats are strongly opposed to voting on a dummy bill.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

“Why would anybody vote for a dummy bill, particularly one of this magnitude with the implications of the bill, and simply trust that they’re going to take care and do the right thing in the process?” Baria said. He noted that the superintendents of both school districts he represents are opposed to EdBuild’s recommendations.

Baria represents Bay-Waveland and Hancock Co. school districts, both of which would lose money under EdBuild’s complete proposal.

Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, said she would “absolutely not” vote on an empty bill, “especially one of this magnitude.”

Montgomery County School District

Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, represents Montgomery County School District, which could lose almost $1 million, the equivalent of $3,618 per student.

Oliver first said he hadn’t decided whether he would vote on a placeholder education funding bill, but then clarified, “I’m not going to vote for anything that could cause anyone to lose money.”

Tupelo School District

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, represents Tupelo, home to one of the districts that would likely receive less funding according to the Associated Press analysis.

When asked if he would vote for a placeholder bill to keep the discussion surrounding a funding rewrite alive, Holland responded “Hell no.”

Holland said he could not support “a major change like this in the educational foundation and structure of this state” if it was essentially left in the hands of a few Republican lawmakers.

Hollandale School District

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, represents two districts that would see opposite results, according to the AP analysis. The Greenville Public School District would receive an additional $550 per student while Hollandale School District would be hit with a loss of $74 per student.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville

“My biggest concern is trying to ensure that all the districts in the state get the adequate amount of funding,” Hines said. “If you are from a community that has a dormant tax base these are some scary times because local community people could end up toting the bucket of weight and the state could shutter its responsibility.”

Hines said he hasn’t heard much about the bill’s specifics from leadership and wouldn’t vote for the placeholder bill as it currently stands.

“I was sent down here to be thorough and look out for the best interests of my community, so if I can’t read something to see what’s in a piece of legislation then I can’t support it.”

Smith and West Jasper County School Districts

Rep. Mark Tullos, R-Raleigh, represents Smith and West Jasper County. Like Hines, one of his school districts stands to gain money and one would lose money according to the AP analysis. He said he plans to meet with the superintendent of both districts to learn more about how they would be specifically affected and hear whether they approve of EdBuild’s recommendations.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Rep. Mark Tullos, R-Raleigh

“I think it’s a little premature to say I’m for it or against it (the recommendations) because we don’t even know what the proposed appropriations for education is going to be,” Tullos said. “I’m not comfortable with voting on a bill just because somebody says ‘Oh, this is a great thing.’ ”

The leadership advised no one rush to make any changes, Tullos said.

“If this is going to happen, lets go slow, lets do it right so that later on down the road we’re not having to shuffle it and we try to over-correct something when there’s no need to do that.”