The Mississippi Department of Education on Friday, Mar. 11, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi Department of Education says its hands are tied when it comes to the $100 million in additional funding allocated to school districts this year because of disagreements in the Legislature about how to distribute it. 

After a push this session to fully fund public schools, school districts ultimately received $100 million outside of the regular school funding formula to be distributed by student enrollment. But in the months since the Legislature adjourned, there has been confusion regarding exactly how to calculate enrollment, leading to questions for superintendents as they make budgets for the upcoming school year. 

“We have not been given a clear direction on how it is that we are to calculate how we divide up the $100 million,” Interim state Superintendent Mike Kent told Mississippi Today.

The Mississippi Department of Education defines enrollment as the “number of students belonging to a school unit at any given time.” The definition goes on to explain that enrollment is an “ever-changing” number, meaning that calculations of enrollment are tied to a specific time period. 

The text of the law says the money is to be distributed based on “average daily enrollment or the total number of students enrolled for each day in each public school district or charter school divided by the total number of school days.”  

Kent said he originally thought the extra $100 million was to be distributed based on enrollment in months 2-3 of a school year, similar to how students are counted for the public school funding formula. However, when he followed up with the Legislative Budget Office after the session ended, the office said it needed to check and would get back to him. Two proposals emerged, one from the Senate to count enrollment using months 1-8 of the school year, and a plan from the House to count it based on months 2-3. 

“Our intention with the $100 million language in the appropriations bill was to disburse this money to school districts on the average daily enrollment,” said Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville. “I think the language as we crafted it was clear, and our intention on the Senate side is to follow the language in the law. I don’t believe we should be deviating from what the language in the statute says.”

During the session, House leaders refused to add additional money to the school funding formula after the Senate brought forward a proposal to rework it. Though on Tuesday, a source close to House leadership told Mississippi Today it was always the intent of the House to distribute this separate money using the same method as the school funding formula, which uses months 2-3. The source said there is a standard that has always been followed and the Legislature needs to continue to follow that precedent. 

Kent said MDE ran calculations multiple times to show legislators how the different proposals would play out. He said the difference between the options was “negligible.” 

Despite this, Kent said the department cannot proceed without official guidance from the Legislative Budget Office. 

“We are, to a great extent, a flow-through agency … and there are always strict guidelines about how that money flows,” he said.  

He added that, while the difference between the options is small, it’s enough that if the department “arbitrarily” made a decision, “there would be people that would have a problem with it.” 

Budget bills take effect July 1, giving the Legislature just a few days to resolve the matter before the education department is supposed to start distributing the money. 

“The language in the statute in the appropriations was clear that the money should be disbursed based upon the number of students throughout the school year,” said DeBar, the senate education chair. “I expect that the Department of Education will follow the law and disburse that money as of July 1.” 

Kent said this delay was a point of stress for district superintendents because it limits their ability to budget for the upcoming school year and get new projects approved by their school boards. To address this, Kent wrote an email earlier this month to superintendents explaining the dueling proposals and gave them an estimate of $236 per student. 

“The districts were so eager to know the number because there are programs and projects and personnel that every district wanted to do, but they needed to know, am I talking about hiring two additional teachers or three? Can I build six classrooms or twelve classrooms?” he said. 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.