State education chief blames teacher pay snafu on computer system ‘held together by band aids’

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Carey Wright, State Superintendent of Education, answers questions about staffing during a legislative working group hearing centering on agencies personnel and their cost effectiveness, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at the Capitol in Jackson.

The exact number of teachers accidentally left out of funding for a $1,500 pay raise and how much it will cost to cover the budget shortfall will be determined later this month, the Mississippi Department of Education said Wednesday.

In a release, the department detailed how the mistake came to be and blamed the error on an information system officials have warned lawmakers is old and unreliable.

When the Legislature asked the department for a count of teachers to be included in the raise and how much that would cost, MDE officials used a code in the Mississippi Student Information System (MSIS) referencing state-funded teaching positions. Some teachers are paid with federal funds instead of state funds, and the department used that code in “an overabundance of caution to ensure that federally funded teachers were not captured in the estimate.”

The problem is that code missed some state-funded teachers, meaning the count omitted some special education, career technical education, gifted classes and teacher assistants, resulting in an incorrect estimate to the Legislature. The error was discovered last week when local superintendents discovered there were not enough funds for them to give raises to all of their teachers.

“The MDE’s review revealed that MSIS does not currently have the capability to collect locally-maintained, teacher-level funding source data,” the department said Wednesday in a news release.

In a Sept. 17, 2018 presentation to the Legislative Budget Committee, Wright asked for an additional $2 million to update the MSIS system.

“We need money to modernize our student information system,” Wright told legislators at the time. “This continues to be a real concern for us and we’re only asking for $2 million. We think that this system is well over 20 years old and to say that it’s been held together by band aids is an understatement.”

An examination of the department’s budget requests since fiscal year 2014 shows the MDE has asked the Legislature for an extra $2 million to $5 million dollars for the MSIS system since fiscal year 2016, depending on the year. The funds would be used to “to improve data accuracy” and eliminate duplication, according to the requests. In the 2019 legislative session, $500,000 were appropriated for MSIS.

Appropriations committee chairmen Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale and Rep. John Read, R-Gautier were not immediately available for comment.

In the release, the department stressed that teachers will receive their pay raises one way or another.

“Let me be clear, all teachers and teacher assistants will receive their well-deserved pay raise,” Wright said. “State-funded teachers will receive their raise with state funds. Federally funded teachers will receive their raise with their district’s federal funds.”

Local school districts “will be allocated enough money through the current appropriation to cover the monthly cost of the teacher pay raise,” the department said.

When the news came to light last week, Gov. Phil Bryant said he would not call a special session at taxpayers’ expense. Both he and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves suggested the additional funds can be provided as a deficit appropriation by the Legislature during the 2020 session, which starts in early January.

Neither man will be in office during the full legislative session, however. Bryant cannot seek reelection due to term limits while Reeves is running for governor meaning he will not return to the capitol as president of the Senate.