School funding bills die

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Fred Anklam Jr., Mississippi Today

Mississippi State Capitol

Bills to revise the state education funding formula died from inaction Thursday in the Mississippi Legislature.

The House adjourned shortly before 4 p.m. without acting on their bill, thereby killing it.

The Senate, which was in a recess at that time, returned but passed over its funding bill and other bills before adjourning.

Bills had to pass the chamber they had been introduced in by midnight Thursday or they died.

In a joint statement, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said: “We are dedicated to revamping the current formula, which is seriously flawed and needs to be replaced with a plan that focuses on student needs in the classroom. ”

“Superintendents and school business officers complain about the significant variability in dollars from year-to-year; therefore, we agree that any change should limit any appreciable impact on school districts for the 2017-2018 school year,” the statement read.

“We agree that passing something by today’s deadline has no bearing on accomplishing our ultimate goal,” the statement said.

After the House adjourned, Gunn, R-Clinton, said he still thinks revisions to the funding formula are possible. Gunn said he has been in contact with Gov. Phil Bryant about the possibility of a special session to bring up a funding bill, but a rewrite could also come in the form of an appropriations bill or suspension of rules motions.

Gunn said that legislative leaders were not willing to bring a bill forward until they had finalized a new funding formula.

“You’ll see when the product is finished and that’s what you’ll see,” Gunn told reporters.

“The determining factor is us getting a bill that is good and bringing it forward at that time,” he said. “We’re just not at that point.”

Gunn noted that EdBuild’s proposal to eliminate the 27 percent rule has created concern at local school districts. He said he has has not taken a position on whether to maintain or drop the 27 percent rule.

Reeves cited many of the same options to revive or create a new bill as Gunn. He also told reporters after adjournment that the Senate and the House are working closely together and expect to bring forward a “substantially similar” formula.

Reeves said there was not a lack of consensus between the Speaker’s office and his, but that they were having “very constructive conversations.”

“We are trying to get to the right formula for students and we think we’re certainly very, very close to that,” he said. He also noted that none of EdBuild’s recommendations, including the elimination of the 27% rule, are off the table at this point.

Several senators noted they would not be willing to vote on a placeholder, or dummy, bill.

“That’s not the proper way to govern,” Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, who represents four school districts, said. McMahan said he would not feel comfortable voting on any school funding issue until he had the opportunity to speak with superintendents, parents and community members.

“I’m not here to vote for what I think is right but what my constituents think is right,” he said.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said he would have felt comfortable voting on a placeholder if he had enough information. But at this point, he said, he does not.

“I want to look at the numbers for my district and all over the state,” Hopson said. “And in due course I will or I’ll be voting against it.”

Freshman Sen. Joseph Seymour, R-Vancleave, said he would not vote on a placeholder bill in light of the errors in the special funds sweeps law last year.

Gunn and Reeves had not spoken publicly about plans for the legislation in days leading up to the deadline for chambers to pass their own bills.

House and Senate committees passed dummy bills last week to keep the issue alive for this session. The bills moved forward as legislative leaders worked through revisions to a new funding formula that had been presented in January by the New Jersey-based consultant, EdBuild.

Earlier Thursday, Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, a key player in the process on the House side, said he personally hopes legislators wait to vote.

“I want to slow it down until we have more information and more there for people to look at it,” Bennett said. “I want everyone to see how it affects their districts. I want it to be fully vetted.”

Privately, top Republicans in both chambers who asked not to be identified, had told Mississippi Today early Thursday that a sense was emerging that the bills should not be rushed and that a better option might be addressing the education formula in a special session that could be called by the governor later this year.

The House passed over its bill HB 1294 on Thursday morning and adjourned just before 4 p.m. without considering the bill. The Senate bill, SB 2607, died when the Senate adjourned for the day.

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said Thursday morning there are “other options” available, but said he did not know whether the bill would be brought up in the Senate before the deadline.

Uncertainty about the impact on local school districts has prompted a number of legislators to urge a slower approach. A number of House members told Mississippi Today earlier this week that they did not favor passing a dummy bill.

The legislative leadership hired EdBuild in October to assess and provide recommendations for changing the state’s current school funding formula, or the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. In January, EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia presented a 79-page report recommended a weighted student funding formula.

Students who fall into certain categories such as special needs, English Language Learners, gifted, and the early and the later grades would receive additional resources under their proposal. If the proposal was taken in full, more than 80 percent of school districts would receive an increase in funding compared to this year’s level of funding, an AP analysis of the numbers showed.

The report also recommended eliminating the 27% rule, which allows property-wealthy school districts to receive a total of $120 million in excess funds, Sibilia said.

However, legislators have repeatedly said they will not be adopting all of the recommendations at once. So far, no specifics have been presented in any legislation. Committees in both the House and the Senate passed placeholder, or dummy, bills earlier in the session to keep the bills alive.