A lawmaker reads a section of recommendations laid out by EdBuild, a New Jersey non-profit education consulting firm, during a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education and Appropriations committees on Jan. 16.

Legislators took steps Tuesday to ensure they can make changes to the state public school funding formula without revealing at this time what that might look like.

Tuesday was the deadline for bills to pass out of committee or die.

So the House Appropriations Committee passed a bill Tuesday afternoon that brings forward code sections of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or the state’s current school funding formula. The Senate Education Committee did the same.

Essentially a “dummy bill,” the move makes it possible for lawmakers to amend the law in the future despite having no specific changes to the funding formula ready by deadline day.

At least one key player in the process, Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, indicated to his committee that the public may not see any details of a new funding formula until after the bill goes to a conference committee, which could be in late March.

Legislative leaders contracted with EdBuild, a New Jersey nonprofit, last fall to develop a proposal for revamping the state’s school funding formula.

EdBuild made its presentation on Jan. 16, and legislators have indicated they see that as a starting point, not the final formula. However, details of what changes to the proposal they might make have not been outlined publicly.

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, presented the bill to the House committee.

“We’re working on it continuously. There’s been stuff printed in the press about districts losing money and those numbers aren’t accurate,” Bennett said. “We have no idea what’s going to happen at this point.”

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, questioned the timing of the recommendations and the bill.

“You said ‘we’re’ working on it, can you share with us who that ‘we’ is and whether whomever that is feels like this is something we have to do this session?” Baria asked. “Do we have to rush something out this session that’s dealing with as big of a component as education is of our budget?”

Bennett said that if a proposal he feels confident in isn’t ready, he would not support rushing a bill through this session.

“I’ve had as much input on this as you have,” Bennett responded to Baria.

Bennett told reporters after the committee meeting that he is bringing several recommendations to the leadership.

“I’m bringing recommendations that we have a formula first that we can fully fund and then what I want to do is I want to try and make everyone whole. I don’t want anyone to lose money,” he said.

He also said he hopes a new formula would be implemented over a five to seven-year period as suggested in EdBuild’s proposal.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, proposed an amendment that would delay the effective date of the bill one year, from 2017 to 2018. The amendment failed by a vote of 6 to 19.

Both the House and Senate committees approved an amendment requiring districts to use a uniform system of accounts.

“(The amendment is) making it uniform how the dollars are spent in the schools — whether it’s going in the classroom, administration, special education, vocation,” Bennett said. “We’re making it uniform throughout so we can compare apples to apples when we’re looking at what districts are doing.”

Tollison told his committee the bill bringing forward all code sections of the funding formula was to increase school districts’ financial transparency.

“What is before you right now is a bill dealing with fiscal, financial transparency and accountability. What goes forward, I can’t tell you, but there’s likely that not some of the recommendations in that report will be in there,” Tollison responded.

But Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, questioned the transparency of both the school funding rewrite process and what Senate Bill 2607 actually does.

“What kind of person votes for a dummy bill when all the public school students in Mississippi are at stake?” he asked, noting how many public hearings were held across the state when the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was being drafted.

Blount pointed out there was only one public hearing for parents, teachers and educators in Jackson, and EdBuild only visited with a small number of school districts.

Tollison said EdBuild’s report provides lawmakers and the public plenty of information.

“You can look at those recommendations and read deeply about why we made those recommendations, one of which is there’s almost $450 to $500 million outside the formula that is unevenly distributed across the state,” he said.

The funds outside the formula go toward add-on programs such as special education, transportation, vocational education and gifted education.

When asked whether the Senate will be following what Bennett said earlier in that the goal is for no school districts to lose money and to keep the 27 percent rule, Tollison said “That’s yet to be determined as we go forward, but I think that’s more likely than not.”

Opponents of the new formula point out EdBuild’s recommendations still add up to a smaller amount of money than full funding of the MAEP. It also does not include an automatic recalculation of the base student cost based on inflation, which the MAEP does every four years.

EdBuild’s proposal included a base student cost of $4,840 per student based on enrollment, which would increase the overall funding per student compared to current per student funding. The base student cost for this year under MAEP is $4,980, but uses average daily attendance, or the number of students present for the majority of a school day on a certain day in the fall. If the current MAEP formula was fully funded by the Legislature, it would have provided $5,359 per student.

EdBuild estimates that moving from average daily attendance to average enrollment would add about 6 percent to the base student cost.

Additional weights based on students’ characteristics such as special needs, low-income status or English Language Learners would be added then to the base student cost to calculate the total amount in the EdBuild proposal.

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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.