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As a new education formula rockets through the House, lawmakers say their school officials back home still have a lot of questions about what the legislation does — but the answers coming from leaders steering the process remain fuzzy.
The House Appropriations Committee passed HB 957 on a voice vote Tuesday morning. This, despite a chorus of concern from members of both parties about lack of clarity about details of the legislation.
“I’m hearing a lot of concern about what’s in the bill and that they haven’t had time to go through and vet it,” Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, said of what he’s hearing from superintendents and constituents in his district. He added that he’s “pleased with where we are today,” but that it is still early in the process.
“The heartburn comes in with some of the things that are maybe not as clear (in the bill)… I think it’s just going to take some time in making sure that the bill reads the way we intend it to read,” DeLano said.
Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, unsuccessfully offered an amendment to the bill that would change its effective date to July 2020.
“There are too many unanswered questions about something as significant as rewriting the K-12 education formula,” Baria said. “It’s the largest part of our budget each year, and it’s more significant than just being a number because it involves our future, the education of our children.”
Baria said he agreed that superintendents want predictability when it comes to their budget, but that micromanaging schools is “not good policy.”
“What they really want is for the Legislature to get out of their business, give them the money to teach, and then get out of the way,” he said. “And we keep micromanaging schools like we know better than the educators do.”
The uncertainty has been exacerbated as House Education Chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, has struggled in recent days to answer some questions about the bill from lawmakers and the media.
The bill currently says it will go into effect upon passage, but during the meeting Bennett said the new formula would go into effect in Fiscal Year 2019. On Tuesday, Bennett also frequently conferred with House staffers to answer basic questions about the bill.
The legislation would rewrite Mississippi’s current public school funding formula and replace it with one that assigns a base cost and adds weights for specific types of students.
Bennett today echoed many of the same points he made earlier in the week, mainly that Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which the state currently uses, is an “unrealistic formula” and the new one will be much easier to understand.
“It’s much simpler. Anyone can calculate it, anyone can understand it,” Bennett said. “I wouldn’t be up here presenting this bill if I didn’t believe it was good.”
Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, whose district includes Carroll County, Leflore County and Winona schools, attended the meeting. The three school districts would lose from 3.6 to 5.8 percent in funding over the phase-in of the new formula.
Oliver said he has not heard from superintendents in those districts and he remains undecided about how he will vote on the bill when it reaches the floor, as early as Wednesday.
House Appropriations Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, said the superintendents he has heard from at home were most concerned with talk of removing the 27 percent rule, or the provision that allows property-wealthy districts across the state to keep $120 million in state funds they would otherwise have to raise locally.
Read represents Pascagoula School District, which would have lost the most from the removal of the 27 percent rule. HB 957, however, keeps the rule in the new formula, despite statements made by EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia that the rule is “inequitable” and “bad for kids.”
“We’ve got Chevron, the (Ingalls) shipyard, a lot of industry. But along with that industry comes health problems, maintenance of roads and heavy equipment – it’s not all sugar coated,” Read said. “And if you eliminated the 27 percent (rule) it would’ve cost that district around $14 million to $15 million. They’re going to lose $1 million anyway with this new formula … (but) the superintendent and I have had a conversation and he said ‘I’ll live with it.’”
During the meeting, lawmakers repeatedly asked Bennett if it was possible to do away with the rule, to which he responded: “We’re going to study it.”
Stripping the rule immediately would take too much money away from specific districts at once, he said.
“I think that’s something you’ve got to just put the brakes on,” Bennett said. “I just don’t think it’s a fair thing to do.”
The committee approved one amendment, proposed by Bennett, that changes the date when the formula can be reviewed. Now, the bill calls for several reviews beginning in 2021.