EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia listens and takes notes as people share their ideas on a new education funding formula. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

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Parents, teachers and education advocates spoke of the importance of substantial and equitable funding for schools and teachers at a public hearing at the Capitol on Thursday.

Members of the nonprofit EdBuild, which the Legislature hired to analyze and potentially rewrite the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, listened to the three-minute speeches by citizens and took notes.

“There’s a lot of passion around public education. People are passionate about teachers,” EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said after the meeting.

While there was a fair share of criticism of the Legislature for failing to fund the current formula, there were several common themes in the speakers’ suggestions:

• The first is to ensure the new formula is equitable, or takes into account districts with less of a tax base to prop up their schools.

• The second is ensuring teachers are paid competitive wages.

• The third is being more transparent about the formula revising process, including releasing the state’s contract with EdBuild.

Porter Wells, who spoke on behalf of her friend who is a public school teacher, said the solution to the failure of education in Mississippi begins with the infrastructure.

“It’s not easy, nor is it cheap. We have to meet our students’ basic needs – shelter from the elements, safe space in the classroom first,” she said.

She also encouraged Sibilia and her team to visit schools in poverty-stricken areas.

“Anybody working with school funding needs to physically visit the failing schools and ask yourself, ‘Could you work in that environment?’” Wells said.

Sibilia said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is arranging visits for her and her staff to schools, but she’s not sure whether they will include schools outside of the metro area.

Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn were not present at the hearing.

Camille Lessig, a former public school teacher, echoed Wells on infrastructure needs.

“As Governor William Winter says, ‘The only route out of poverty runs by the schoolhouse door.’ But if the schoolhouse door is busted, the schoolhouse ceiling is falling in and school house teachers are underpaid, overtrained and overburdened, how far along that road can we actually go?” she asked.

Others stressed the need for a formula that is equitable.

“First, equity among school districts is key to the current MAEP formula. But the legislature has undermined this provision by underfunding the MAEP year after year,” said Cindy White, director of communications for the education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign and the mother of a child in Madison County schools. “Low-wealth school districts cannot overcome the loss of state funds. Higher wealth districts such as my own even struggle to do so.”

Sibilia said during her last visit to Mississippi that she will “make sure there is a strong equity provision in our recommendations that does not punish areas with more wealth.” She was not able to provide specific details of what that would look like at that time.

Some speakers focused more on the logistics of the meetings and the process of hiring EdBuild. Lewis Coleman of Madison said there should be more notice given before the meetings are held, while others said more meetings should be held and in different areas of the state.

Russ Latino, the state director of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, asked EdBuild to take an “objective” look at school funding, noting that while Mississippi may rank low compared to other states on per-pupil spending, the state ranks higher in per-pupil spending in proportion to income level.

“There’s something missing from this discussion and what’s missing is the context of what’s important for taxpayers,” Latino said. “Because we can have a lot of emotional rhetoric and want better and want more, but at the end of the day some of this is a math equation.”

Several people mentioned the “secrecy” of the Legislature and its refusal to release its contract with EdBuild.

“Secrecy has never been our friend,” Carrie Barksdale said. “The process smells like a dead cow plant.”

The next public meeting has not yet been scheduled, but people are encouraged to email input and suggestions to schoolfinance@ls.ms.gov.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.