CLARKSDALE – As a way to keep residents informed about this past legislative session, state Rep. Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale, hosted a community forum here comprised of Democratic state officials, congressional leaders, and public policy advocates to reflect on hot button issues like Medicaid, women’s rights and equal pay, and infrastructure for roads and bridges.

But the talk of a rewrite of the state’s K-12 education formula was a recurring theme throughout the panel discussions at the Coahoma Community College pinnacle on Monday night.

“I’m supposed to update y’all on what good things happened with K-12 education so it’ll be very short compared to (the other speakers),” said state Rep. Jay Hughes.

House Bill 957, which would have replaced Mississippi’s current funding formula with the Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Act of 2018, passed by the House, but died in the Senate.

This would have replaced Mississippi Adequate Education Formula with a new, weighted formula that would provide a base $4,800 amount per student.

The House, which Hughes stated has a supermajority, said, “They we’re going to get rid of adequate funding and we’re gonna come up with a goofy new formula that every year the schools have to come beg and in seven years, we’re going to have to give you less than you’re getting today.”

“When they stand up and say, I’m pro-education. Ask them if they’re pro-public education,” said Hughes. “They killed the bill for mandatory pre-K. They killed the bill for mandatory kindergarten. They killed the bill for teacher pay raise. They killed the bill for teacher assistant pay raise, and the killed the bill for school board pay raise — so that’s how they are for education.”

Tyrone Hendrix, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said public education is under attack, citing the examples like attempts at expanding the state’s voucher program, Education Savings Account, the intentional underfunding of schools, and killing bills Paden proposed like HB106, to increase assistant teacher pay raises and HB699, which would increase teacher’s salary.

Teacher shortages are real, especially in the Mississippi Delta said Hendrix, and lawmakers this legislative session filed multiple bills attempting to address teacher shortages and licensing.

Paden proposed a bill, HB160, that would allow teachers to receive a license even if they don’t meet all of the state’s required standards. That bill died in committee.

Even though these bills didn’t get passed, Hendrix said more bad bills were defeated — the result of strong coalitions inside the Capitol and outside in communities.

Tyrone Hendrix, executive director of Mississippi Association of Educators Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

“We know that if we’re gonna see real change in Mississippi, it starts with education,” said Hendrix. “And it takes an entire community coming together to ensure that all children receive a high quality excellent education.”

Questions posed by audience members suggested concern about charter schools, specifically, “is funding reduced from traditional public schools when charter schools come in?”

Hughes answered yes.

“If you have $5,000 per child and 100 kids leave your school district. They have $500,000 dollars less to operate,” said Hughes. “It doesn’t reduce the number of teachers, the number of school buses, the maintenance on the building, the electric bills or the cafeteria. It doesn’t do anything but take away money which is why I’m not saying charter schools are bad, but they’re not now, because I think about ‘what about those who are left behind?’ ”

The first charter school in rural Mississippi was approved last year and is set to open this Fall in this community.

The conversation around transportation, roads, and bridges was another hot topic during this legislative session.

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency that ordered the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) to immediately close 83 city and county bridges that were cited as deficient by federal National Bridge Inspection Standards and the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction.

This happened a week after the U.S. Department of Transportation notified the state that the Federal Highway Administration is concerned that the bridges remaining open constitutes an unacceptable safety risk requiring immediate federal, state and local action.

Now, more than 100 city and county bridges are being closed across the state.

“I agree that we’re not doing a good job of maintaining our roads and bridges. Its an issue that we have to address because we’re constantly trying to entice businesses into our state,” said State Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, to the 240 guests in the audience.

“This is something everyone agrees we should do something about and there’s absolutely no reason why we haven’t done it.”

Baria said there has been many conversations around fixing the crumbling roads and deficient bridges and a few Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) reports conducted to determine MDOT’s efficiency and if the funding streams were substantial enough to keep roads safe.

“When the need arose, when people started saying we got problems with roads and bridges, first thing somebody said was, ‘Well, MDOT should have plenty of money. Someone’s wasting our money’.”

PEER’s 2013 report found they allocated $150 million annually through pavement projects, but estimated that $1 billion was needed to repair pavement and $400 billion to maintain and keep in good condition annually, said Baria. 

He went on to say MDOT allocated about $50 million annually for bridge projects, but estimated $2.7 billion was needed to repair or replace bridges and $200 million annually to replace deficient bridges.

In 2015, Mississippi Economic Council released a report, Blueprint Mississippi, that stated it would take $370 million a year to maintain the investment made or it’ll get worse.

So, what has the Legislature done since the findings? Baria noted not much.

Instead of doing something, during the 2016 session, Baria mentioned PEER did another report that answered the legislators question of how much money is being spent on transportation to and from school to go around the bridges as well as safety concerns for deficient bridges, which he added, cost schools a lot of more.

At this point, “The legislators still didn’t do anything,” he said.

An audience member asked if the state was liable for automobile damage as a result of hitting a pothole.

“There are cases when the state has failed to do its job of maintaining roads or bridges and someone is injured or killed where the state can be held responsible, but generally speaking, if there’s a pothole and it does damage to the car, the state isn’t going to be responsible for that,” said Baria.

Senator Derrick T. Simmons Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Sen. Derrick T. Simmons briefly discussed bills regarding criminal justice and juveniles.

Noting that the cost of corrections increased, in 2014, HB585, passed to ensure the population decreases, said Simmons, which coincided with their goal of reducing the cost of corrections.

This year, HB387, that implements retroactive parole elgibility for nonviolent offenders, was passed because in HB585, sentencing reforms with property crimes and death crimes started July 1, so a provision was not made for individuals in the system.

With HB387, Simmons said if an individual was on probation and he or she reported to court late or tested high for drug usage, it allowed the court to not bound them immediately to corrections but to be treated as a technical violation instead of revoking them.

SB2868, or the gang bill, would impose harsh penalties for adults who get youth involved in gangs, defined gangs as three or more people with identifying colors, clothing and hand signs that engage in “criminal gang activity.”

“It was disproportionally focusing on impacting communities of color through prosecution and punishment,” said Simmons to the crowd.

This bill passed in the Senate, but died in the House.

For several years now, several legislators have put forth bills what would guarantee equal pay for equal work for women in the state. But, this year, Baria, and his counterparts with the support of Treasurer Lynn Fitch and State Rep. Becky Currie, said their goal was to get a bill out of committee and get it passed.

Baria added they wanted to model a state law after the the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, legislation under President Barack Obama’s administration.

House shows more than 2-to-1 support for equal gender pay law

The 84-32 vote came during debate on a bill that would prohibit local governments from establishing their own minimum wages when Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, offered an equal pay amendment.

Final action on the bill was delayed when a point of order about another aspect of the bill was raised.

“We’re still one of two, I think, states in the country that does not have a law on the books, a state law, that mandates that employers must pay women the same amount as they pay men for the same work with all things being equal,” said Baria.

The Department of Mental Health has taken several budget cuts over the past year, said executive director Steve Allen, but their goal is to help local communities receive more resources.

This session, a Medicaid technical bill, that outlined how the agency will spend its $6 billion budget, was passed.

It includes provisions that allow the agency to reimburse providers for the treatment of people addicted to opioids, increase the reimbursement rate for Mississippi’s rural hospitals, and mandates that the division redo its overall hospital reimbursement formula.

Allen said they plan to move $8 million to community mental health centers, shift $2 million to home community base labor, reduce the need of inpatient care, allow 782 people to be served locally rather than the state hospitals, and more.

He said $800,000 will be given to this region to create crisis stabilization beds.

Steve Allen, executive director of the Department of Mental Health Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

There was a bond bill that gives the department $1 million dollars to aid in forensic issues, said Allen.

“There’s only 35 beds to take care of the entire state of Mississippi,” said Allen. “When you go to that building, it is not the safest area in the world.”

He noted that they’re making progress, but they’ve got a long way to go, too.

Congressman Bennie Thompson gave the attendees a few things to keep an eye on at the federal level and noted some of the legislation he’s proposing to help.

In order to pay for tax cuts, snipping social security and medicare benefits, and adding a work requirement for Medicaid and increasing SNAP requirements are a few things being proposed in Washington, said Congressman Bennie Thompson.

Congressman Bennie Thompson talks to audience about what’s going on in the White House Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

“Most of the folk on Medicaid, Number One, are children and the second folk on Medicaid are the disabled, so we make children go to work and the disabled go to work,” said Thompson.

He added that wealthy farmers in this region will receive an increase, but “they’re penalizing people on food stamps, children who get free and reduced lunches, summer feeding programs, and all of those programs under the proposed farm bill will be cut.”

Thompson said that he’s currently working on a bill to lower student loan interest rates to two percent.

“Right now the government is making money off of your student loans. … When I was in college, I borrowed money, but my loan didn’t start until I finished. Now, the Republicans have put it together where your interest starts the day you get the loan. That’s not an incentive for my loan,” he said.

Not inviting congressional Democrats to attend the state dinner and passing a tax bill that didn’t go through committees were examples Thompson used to “craft an image for you of what we’re having to deal with” in Washington with (President Donald) Trump.

“My grandson is 12 years of age. I have never in my life had a president that when he comes on TV, I have to tell my grandson leave the room because I don’t know what he gonna say. That’s not who we need as a president,” said Thompson.

Despite what’s going on a federal and state level with any of these issues, Dr. Corey Wiggins, executive director of NAACP Mississippi State Conference, emphasized when it comes to decisions by lawmakers, thinking in terms of adequate, level-funding is not going to cut it.

“As we think about this whole conversation is the need for more resources, the need for being engaged civically,” said Wiggins. “While we continue to do the work to make sure we get people registered to vote, as we continue to do the work to get people out to the polls to vote, we also have to continue to do the work to hold those that we elected accountable.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.