An outside education consulting firm presenting recommendations for changing the state’s education funding formula to legislators Monday suggested that the state reconsider its commitment to providing 73 percent of the funds for public education.

Such a move, if adopted by the Legislature, would force some local communities to face increased property taxes to make up for a shortfall in state support.

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia told members of the House and Senate Education and Appropriations Committees that schools in Mississippi rely on state funds for 73 percent of their total budget, more than in most other states.

“We are recommending that you consider whether or not holding the state to a 73 percent guarantee to cover the cost of education is either fair or promotes an adequate school funding system,” she said.

When legislators questioned whether this meant the burden would shift to local communities and potentially force them to raise taxes, Sibilia said that is not EdBuild’s recommendation. The New Jersey-based firm received a contract last summer to evaluate and recommend changes to the state’s funding formula for public schools.

“We’re not making the recommendation that local communities increase their resources,” she said.

Sibilia said that by making the 73 percent commitment the state sends $120 million in excess funds to school districts rather than directing those resources to student needs.

In a 79-page report, EdBuild also recommended increasing the base student cost, or the amount of money it takes to educate an average student, by about four percent to $4,840. Then, additional weights would be added to that amount for students with special needs, students in poverty and English Language Learners.

Another recommendation from the firm is to provide extra funding to high school students to ensure they reach the state’s newly adopted college and career readiness standards, along with students in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade.

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House Education Committee Chairman John Moore said EdBuild’s recommendations were “right down the alley” of what the Legislature asked for.

“We’re going to run toward the finish line as hard as we can,” Moore said, but noted he won’t rush. “I believe we will ultimately have an instrument to work with … I’m confident if we’re close to a product I believe that the Governor would potentially call us back into a special session to do something very quickly.”

Moore acknowledged some school districts will receive less money under a new formula, but said he believes most districts will be happy.

“I think at the end of the day we’re going to have a whole lot of districts very happy with this thing if it passes and we use most of her recommendations,” Moore said.

Moore, R-Brandon, filed a dummy bill on Monday that allows lawmakers to make “possible amendments” to all Mississippi code sections dealing with the current MAEP formula later in the session. Monday was the deadline for introduction of general bills.

Moore said he thinks any formula changes could be considered a general bill, an appropriations bill (which has later deadlines), or both.

“We would like to get something done this session, but the clock’s ticking,” Moore said.

In a joint statement issued immediately after the hearing, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn said “We know that many of the recommendations can help us shape a brighter future for our children regardless of the zip code in which they live.”

“We recognize the difficulty of the next stage of this legislative process, but we remain optimistic that our colleagues are ready to work together to make this happen,” the legislative leaders said. 

Some want more information on the impact of the proposals.

“We still don’t have the most important piece of information, which is what will the local impact be on individual school districts? We need the Department of Education to get this information from EdBuild, run those numbers and provide that information to local communities and to the Legislature before the Legislature considers any concrete proposal,” Nancy Loome, executive director of the education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign, said after the presentation.

Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said he is not enthusiastic about possibility of local districts paying a larger portion of the school-funding formula.

“We’re already cash strapped in the city of Jackson,” Bell said. “That’s why our infrastructure is the way it is now. All our tax dollars have moved out to Madison, Flowood. And if you do raise taxes in the city of Jackson we’re going to further put ourselves into indebtedness, pretty much be left at the will of the state.”

EdBuild’s recommendations also include removing a cap on the amount of mills local communities can raise taxes. Some school districts are already at that cap.

Oleta Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, said giving local districts latitude to raise taxes would help wealthier school districts and hurt poor ones.

“Having the ability to raise your millage rate means nothing if you don’t have a tax base. So it really doesn’t make any sense. Who that will help is who’s already getting helped by that. You’ve got the high growth districts — the districts like Madison and Clinton and Rankin (County) and the Gulf Coast and North Mississippi — who can already do that,” Fitzgerald said.

Sibilia urged legislators to phase in a new formula over the course of five to eight years. As part of that, she recommended that no school district lose more than 3 percent of its funding per year, and no district receive any more than 8 percent in additional funding per year.

It is now up to the Legislature to decide which recommendations to adopt into law.

After the EdBuild meeting, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory and co-author of the 1997 MAEP law, introduced a Senate resolution that would not allow the Legislature to pass a law which would “reduce the total funding for public schools below the amount required by the current MAEP law.”

After a few minutes of deliberation, senators voted to send the resolution to the Rules committee, where committee members will later decide its fate. Bryan urged his colleagues not to send it to committee, where he said it would “die a slow, painful death.”

The MAEP has only been fully funded twice in 20 years. This year, the Legislature appropriated $2.5 billion, underfunded the MAEP formula by $172 million.

“The question is, what exactly will the recommendation from EdBuild bring? We don’t know,” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton and chairman of the Senate Rules committee. “We know what it says on paper, but we have to work it out. Let’s wait and see and go through the process to determine where we are, then we can make the determination whether this is something we want to do.”

Contributing: R.L. Nave and Adam Ganucheau

EdBuild Final Report by R.L. Nave on Scribd

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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.