Superintendents from across the state are visiting the Legislature this week with a message: Please support fully funding our schools.
Senate leaders introduced a plan earlier this month to give an additional $181 million to public schools by slightly modifying the state’s public school funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program or MAEP, and fully funding the new version.
The funding formula was established by the Legislature in 1997 and has been consistently underfunded every year since 2008. MAEP provides the state’s share of money for the basic needs of districts, such as teacher salaries, utilities, textbooks and transportation.
Tyler Hansford, superintendent of the Union Public School District, said he does not know of a superintendent opposed to the plan.
“The track record of funding the current MAEP formula is so bad, I think common sense people have realized there’s very little hope of that being done, so what we’ve tried to arrive at is some sort of compromise,” he said. “We’re willing to take less money than what’s in the current formula if we can have a predictable amount, that way it’s not guesswork every year.”
Hansford said superintendents are eager to thank and applaud legislators for supporting public schools and they would like to be able to tell parents “Look at what these people did for your kids.”
Despite broad support among superintendents for the proposal, some education leaders and advocates are worried it will die due to the concerns some House leaders have voiced. The bills currently head to conference committees to work out the differences.
“Both (chambers) really want to do what’s best for kids, I really believe that, but we’re being told that there are some heels being dug in,” said Yazoo County School District Superintendent Ken Barron.
Barron explained he has heard some concerns about wasteful spending, but said he does not see it in all the superintendents he knows.
“We care about the kids, we care about our faculty and staff, and we try to take every dollar that we are allocated and use it efficiently as possible,” he said.
John-Mark Cain, superintendent of the Lauderdale County School District, said schools are facing numerous financial pressures right now, including the ending of federal pandemic relief money, record inflation, aging facilities and increased security needs, making full funding of MAEP particularly critical.
“We’re at a time where we know we have the financial resources in the state to make this possible,” he said.
Superintendent of the Covington County School District Babette Duty said the federal pandemic relief money has inflated school budgets and given people a “skewed” understanding of where they stand with school funding, setting up the district to make hard choices soon without additional funding from the state.
Superintendents lauded the teacher pay raise that was given last year, but said it didn’t cover everyone who also need raises to stay competitive.
“We don’t want to leave out our support staff as well, when we talk about bus drivers, custodians, and our cafeteria workers, again all those things go into providing a safe environment for our students, but in order to do that it takes money and often time those things are not captured in the story when we talk about additional funding,” said Robert Williams, superintendent of the Hattiesburg Public School District.
Some legislators have proposed “earmarking” funds for specific programs or positions instead of giving more money to MAEP, something superintendents say limits their choices.
“Our needs vary, and we really need the autonomy to decide what we want to focus on and what we need to fix,” said Duty. “You can stretch a state dollar further if you put it in such a way that the local district can decide how to utilize it.”