EdBuild has issues with school formula pushed by Speaker Gunn

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Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia, far left, and House Minority Leader David Baria, far right, at a meeting with EdBuild and the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday.

A meeting with school finance group EdBuild and the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday shed light on what new school funding formula lawmakers will consider this year, but some questioned the data used in the calculations.

In particular, Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond, questioned figures that showed Clinton Public School District had more students in poverty than Hinds County.

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia explained the group used numbers from the U.S. Census and correlated them with the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch.

While Dortch said Census figures don’t account for the students in the district who attend private school, Sibilia said the group accounted for that discrepancy. She did, however, suggest lawmakers verify all of the numbers, including enrollment, with their local superintendents to ensure the data the Mississippi Department of Education provided was accurate.

Legislative leadership hired Sibilia’s group last year for $250,000 to provide recommendations for a new school funding formula. In January 2017, Sibilia told a crowded room full of educators and legislators that the state bears too much of the cost of school funding.

This January, however, the group is back at no extra cost to the state to run numbers under a scenario proposed by Speaker Philip Gunn, which only includes some of EdBuild’s suggestions.

Sibilia spoke far more freely than last year, making no attempt to hide her opposition to a key component of the funding scenario for which Gunn asked her to calculate.

Sibilia said Gunn asked her to run numbers if a formula was funded with a base per-pupil cost of $4,800 while retaining the 27 percent rule currently in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s current school funding formula. The 27 percent rule states that no school district shall bear more than 27 percent of the cost of public education, forcing the state to provide funding to property rich districts that some like Sibilia argue could raise the funds through local taxes instead.

The proposal last year to do away with or modify the 27 percent rule led many rank-and-file members of the Legislature to complain that their districts would be forced to raise local taxes to maintain the same school budget moving forward. Concern about the impact on local districts eventually prompted Gunn and other legislative leaders to delay a formal proposal for revamping the school funding formula during last year’s session.

The rest of the formula remains the same as what EdBuild recommended last year, with specific weights, or additional funds, for specific students such as those with special needs, low-income and gifted students, among others.

Gunn’s base student cost closely matches what EdBuild recommended last year ($4,840) but falls far short of the current formula’s base student cost of $5,381.52 as noted in the appropriations bill passed last session. The Legislature’s failure to fully fund the formula, however, resulted in a lower base cost for students.

Sibilia made clear, however, she strongly opposes keeping the 27 percent rule, which allows property wealthy districts to receive money from the state they could make up for in local funds.

“Our recommendation is to do away with the 27 percent rule,” Sibilia said. “It is inequitable, it is illogical, it is not good for kids.”

Gunn was not immediately available Wednesday afternoon to answer questions about the numbers or any potential legislation.

Doing away with the 27 percent rule would result in a total of $120 million back to the state, or the equivalent of $240 for every student.

The districts benefiting most from the 27 percent rule are Pascagoula, Madison County, Lowndes County, Rankin County and Choctaw County. Pascagoula School District, for example, receives $17.8 million in state funding it would not receive if not for the rule.

The effect of Gunn’s new formula, should it be adopted, would result in $107 million more for schools over the course of a 5-year phase-in, Sibilia told lawmakers. Schools would see about $50 million more in the first year of implementation.

Several lawmakers noted the total amount still falls below what full funding of the MAEP requires.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, said the spreadsheet with numbers broken down by each school district are meaningless since there has been no proposed legislation.

Hughes also criticized the fact that EdBuild’s recommendations do not include a recalculation of the base student cost (or $4,800) each year.

“If we’ve got a fixed base of $4,800 plus the multipliers, the reality is it’s up to the discretion of the Legislature what to award each year,” Hughes said. “It’s still no guarantee of funding per district.”

Sibilia maintained, however, the base student cost should be recalculated “based on what’s being spent at the school level, taking into consideration the demographics of students in those schools.”

The deadline for bills to be filed is Monday.