Senators left in the dark on Ed funding

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Ask your state senator what’s going on with the proposed new education funding bill and you’re likely to hear back “I don’t know.”

Twenty Republican senators told Mississippi Today in interviews this week that they are not privy to Senate leadership plans for the House public education funding bill.

Couple those 20 Republicans with the 19 Democrats who are rarely consulted on legislative plans and that means at least 39 of the 52 Mississippi state senators don’t have a clue about what’s going to happen on education funding more than a month into the legislative session.

Mississippi Senate

Sen. Chris Caughman, R-Mendenhall

“I haven’t heard anything, to be honest with you,” said Sen. Chris Caughman, R-Mendenhall, vice-chairman of the Education Committee. “I would say there are probably concerns that here we are and we still haven’t done anything, but my whole point is that I just want something that is good for all my districts. What that is, I’m not sure yet.”

Gil Ford PHotography

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune

“Well, we’ve kind of gotten used to that, not that we prefer it that way,” said Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, another member of the Education Committee, when asked if she was frustrated that Senate members hadn’t heard specifics. “My (school leaders) want to know what to expect, and I can’t give them much.”

Mississippi Senate

Sen. Chris Massey, R-Nesbit

“It would be nice to know more about what the bill is going to look like instead of having such a short time to decipher it,” said Sen. Chris Massey, R-Nesbit, an Education Committee member.

Other responses:

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven: “I haven’t heard anything, but I’ve been in close contact with the superintendent from Brookhaven. I’m not on the inside on that right now.”

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg: “I have not, I have not.”

Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian: “I haven’t heard a thing about a new funding formula.”

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood: “I haven’t heard anything.”

Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville: “We don’t know what the final version is going to be. We all assume there will be something. Nothing but hearsay and rumors at this point in time.”

Mississippi Legislature

Sen. Philip Moran, R-Kiln

Sen. Philip Moran, R-Kiln (Using his phone to consult House numbers he received from Rep. Richard Bennett): “As long as my school districts get more money, I’m fine with it.”

Sen. Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland: “I expect our version to be different … I don’t serve on Education and I have not had any conversations at this point.”

Other Republican Education Committee members – Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg; Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg; Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Olive Branch – said they had not heard what, if anything, would be changed.

All four Democratic members of the Education Committee — largely shut out of major policy exchanges the past six years because Republicans hold a supermajority in the Senate and don’t need their votes to pass legislation — said they had not heard plans either.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP, 2017

Senate Education Committee chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, reads from a copy of recommendations made to lawmakers by EdBuild last year. 

In fact, none of the 15 senators who sit on the Senate Education committee – with the exception of Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, the committee chair who has been close-mouthed about education funding plans all session – had heard about any specific changes the Senate may be asked to make to the bill passed by the House a month ago.

The House bill likely will head to the Senate Appropriations committee — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has yet to make a formal assignment — and faces a Feb. 27 deadline to pass the plan.

Senate leaders this week said the current expectation is that the Senate will be asked to pass a placeholder bill, which will have few real details. That would assure the bill goes to a conference committee, where the details would be hammered out behind closed doors the last weekend in March.

Asking a chamber of the Legislature to pass a placeholder bill can be a risky proposition. Last year, rank-and-file House members, many of them Republicans, signaled that they would not vote to pass a placeholder bill out of concern about the impact on their local school districts. The bill and the issue died for that session.

But even top leaders in the Senate, many seen as confidants of Reeves, say they don’t know what’s going to happen.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton

“The process is set up that we don’t know yet how much money we’ll have to spend (for next fiscal year),” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, the Senate pro tempore — the person elected by the senators as their leader. “We want a good number before making those decisions. We won’t have conference bills until that last weekend in March, so we’ve got plenty of time.”

“I really haven’t (heard any specifics),” said Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, Appropriations Chairman and also a member of the Education Committee. “Where I sit is kind of more at 40,000 feet in watching the whole budget. How do we best spread out what we’ve got? It always comes together.”

But those 20 Senate Republicans – including several in Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ braintrust and chairing key committees – told Mississippi Today this week that they’ve been unable to provide any information on a new spending plan in response to persistent requests for information from public school leaders from their districts.

Those who have been asked about the plan have referred their district’s school leaders to House information released earlier this year.

Several said they have heard that Reeves and Tollison are working on some tweaks to the House bill behind closed doors.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, also on the Education Committee, answered several specific questions about potential changes to the House version with the same, one-line answer: “There is no Senate bill.”

No Senate bill was introduced by leadership to address changes to the state’s public education funding formula. That means the only way to change the formula this year is for a Senate committee to pass the House bill, with or without amendments, by Feb. 27 or the issue dies for this year.

Tollison on Thursday said that he has not yet reviewed the House plan closely.

“Now that we’ve gotten the general bills (out of the way), we’ll look at it closer,” he said. He was referring to Thursday’s deadline for the Senate to take floor action on all bills originating in the Senate.

On Jan. 17, the House rushed their version of a funding formula rewrite with House Bill 957. Members had about five days to digest the 354-page legislation before it passed with a close 66-54 vote.

Despite assurances that a new education funding formula is a joint effort, the House and Senate have been at odds on what a final product may look like.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said at the time the House bill passed that the legislation was a mutual effort between the House and Senate. But leaders at the other side of the Capitol have been cryptic about whether the bill will be changed or even taken up.

“Leadership of the Senate and House has been working together on creating a new student-centered funding formula since 2016, and I expect that will continue,” Laura Hipp, spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said in recent weeks.

The bill was sent over to the Senate on Jan. 18, and as of today has not yet been assigned to committee.

When asked about Reeves’ plan for education funding this session, Hipp said increased investments in the classroom leads to better outcomes, but declined to offer specifics.

“Mississippi needs a school funding formula that focuses on the needs of the students and teachers in the classroom rather than increasing dollars for administration,” Hipp said.

Senate Democrats haven’t even had the same access to information that House members received.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Senate Democrats distributed a Mississippi Today story in a Jan. 11 meeting where they discussed the House’s education funding plan.

Reeves went so far as to forbid EdBuild, the New Jersey-based school finance group that made recommendations for a new school funding formula last year, from meeting with Senate Democrats this session.

The move by Reeves followed a meeting between EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia and House Democrats in January during which Sibilia expressed concerns about Gunn’s bill. A copy of a Mississippi Today article about Sibilia’s meeting with House Democrats was passed out during a Jan. 11 meeting of Senate Democrats on education funding.

During that House meeting, Sibilia noted that Gunn’s funding formula omits one of the key recommendations her group made: to phase out the 27 percent rule. The 27 percent rule states that no school district shall bear more than 27 percent of the cost of public education. That requirement forces the state to provide funding to property rich districts that some like Sibilia argue could raise the funds through local taxes instead.

Concern about the impact on local districts of removing the 27 percent rule was the driving force behind the scuttling last year of efforts to change the school funding formula.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

The move by Reeves raises questions about whether he has lost his enthusiasm for a school funding revamp or is uncertain about House Bill 957, the proposal put forth by Gunn.

“Every senator of both political parties had the opportunity to meet with EdBuild to discuss their recommendations during the scope of their contract last year,” Hipp said when asked why Reeves objected to a meeting between Sibilia and Democratic senators.

Back in January, Hipp said there would be more opportunities over the course of the legislative session for senators to ask questions “about any Senate legislation on a new student-centered funding formula.” Of course, with no bill yet, senators won’t have much time for questions, particularly if any major changes are added.

The Legislature hired EdBuild in late 2016 to review the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s current school funding formula, and to make recommendations regarding a new formula. Those recommendations were published in January of last year, and Gunn included some, but not all, in House Bill 957.