Under Pressure: Some Mississippi Educators Silenced on School-Funding Battle | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Under Pressure: Some Mississippi Educators Silenced on School-Funding Battle

Carroll County Schools Superintendent Billy Joe Ferguson says his district needs the money Initiative 42 would offer, but is keeping quiet amid pressure. Photo by Monique Harrison-Henderson

Carroll County Schools Superintendent Billy Joe Ferguson says his district needs the money Initiative 42 would offer, but is keeping quiet amid pressure. Photo by Monique Harrison-Henderson

Meridian High School science teacher William Tucker has a sign promoting Initiative 42 in his front yard. He hands out pro-42 stickers and speaks out at public forums, urging people to support changing the state's constitution to boost funding for its struggling public schools. For Tucker, the fight is personal: A lack of funding limits his ability to prepare a generation of students for college or the workforce.

Tucker says his science labs haven't been updated in decades, and his textbooks are the same he used in 2006, the year he graduated from Meridian High. The school's sputtering computers are nearly a decade old. When the class dissects fetal pigs, pigeons, sharks, and other specimens, students work in groups of between four and six to save money.

"I know how important this is because I see these kids every day," he said. "I see what we are working with, and I know what we could do with the right resources."

Tucker feels justified expressing support for the legislation that he believes will funnel more funding to his school. Yet he's among the Mississippi educators, including teachers and superintendents, who say they've been pressured to keep quiet about Initiative 42, which will be on the ballot on Nov. 2 alongside a competing amendment lawmakers who are against 42 filed to keep funding fully in the hands of legislators.

The political battle has created a fight between educators and state leaders about whether educators have the right to publicize their political positions. Educators say state leaders have warned them to avoid taking an official position on Initiative 42 during class time or when using school email, copying machines and other taxpayer-funded resources.

Emotions are high in the weeks before voters will be asked to choose between 42—which calls for a constitutional amendment to require the state to fund an "adequate and efficient" system of public-school districts by 2022—and 42A, which would nullify the effort by keeping funding as it is.

If 42 passes, the formula created for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, established as state law in 1997 as part of an effort to better fund public education and provide relief to districts in areas with weak local tax bases, would be used to set funding levels. Legislators passed the formula into law as a promise to public schools but have funded it just twice in 18 years. The constitutional amendment would give teeth to the 1997 law, and if the Legislature didn't meet the requirements of the amendment, the state's chancery courts would enforce funding. That decision could then be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The state's Department of Education emailed district superintendents warning them not to have pro-42 information on district websites. The move came after the state auditor's office contacted state education officials about concerns. State Auditor Stacey Pickering's office told districts they could inform voters about what 42 is, but could not advocate for or against it.

Pickering said in an interview that the warnings are designed to make sure state resources, including employee time and technology, are being used properly. The Republican said his office has issued similar reminders to individual superintendents during previous election years.

At the same time, state agency heads were called to Jackson this summer and told by Republican Herb Frierson, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to draft plans for budget cuts of almost 8 percent if 42 passes. That means some state employees could potentially lose their jobs due to cuts.

Advocates of Initiative 42 complain that warnings to educators are designed to divide higher education and K-12 education communities, while also silencing them on an issue close to many of their hearts.

Pickering said his goal isn't to silence educators, but to make sure their enthusiasm for the measure doesn't lead to an abuse of state resources.

"All we are doing is looking at the potential misuse of public resources—it doesn't matter if people are for or against," Pickering said. "We want to keep them out of trouble. We know they are operating from a place of passion and conviction, but want to make sure there is no financial loss to taxpayers and no violation of state law."

Teachers Under Pressure

Mississippi Association of Educators President Joyce Helmick said that the pressures on pro-42 teachers have not only been intense, but they've served to silence many.

"I'm hearing from educators that there are significant intimidation practices being implemented ... to silence ... our educators," Helmick said. "These intimidation practices are un-American and demonstrate values that clash with the fundamental democratic principles of our nation."

Helmick said she's heard from teachers who have been told to strip 42 stickers from their cars, delete pro-42 posts from their Facebook pages and refrain from sending personal emails supporting 42. She even said some school administrators are telling teachers that troublemakers "will be dealt with."

None of the teachers Helmick referenced were willing to talk on the record about the situations.

Meridian's Tucker said no one has questioned him about how he spends his off-duty time, but one of his school's administrators warned him not to continue talking about connections between Initiative 42 and scarce campus resources during faculty meetings.

"I've had to be careful in a way I didn't expect," he said.

Political pressure can go both ways, and some educators have come under fire for expressing their opposition to 42. In Ellisville, Jones County Junior College President Jesse Smith said 42 supporters blasted him after he used state email to send out a message to fellow presidents soliciting campaign contributions that were aimed at defeating 42. The email went public.

"What happened there is like taking one page out of a (William) Faulkner book and blasting it everywhere, and painting a person's character based on that one page out of the book," Smith said. "That's just politics, and I understand that."

Whatever their beliefs, educators and other state employees have the legal right to express themselves politically, but not when on the clock or when using taxpayer-funded resources, said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum, a Washington, D.C., museum of news and journalism established in part to champion First Amendment rights.

Paulson said the state can place limits on political speech during the school day, but educators have every right to express themselves politically outside of work.

"It's reasonable for the state to say that you can't use your position or government resources to pursue a political agenda," Paulson said. "But you can't limit the expression of a private citizen just because they also happen to be a state employee."

He said educators may need to clarify when they are speaking as private citizens as opposed to when in their official roles.

"You may have to say that you are taking off one hat and putting on another," Paulson said. "It's a distinction that can be important."

James Comans, an eighth-grade science teacher and education blogger in DeSoto County, said he has familiarized himself with his legal right to voice his support of 42.

"Maybe I'm crazy to speak out," Comans said with a laugh. "But to me, this is a big moment in public education. It's a time to have all hands on deck."

Superintendents Keeping Quiet

West Tallahatchie School District Superintendent Darron Edwards, who leads one of the state's most cash-strapped districts, said he won't be speaking out on 42 at all, even though he believes his remote Mississippi Delta district is in desperate need.

That's because state-level communications have frightened him into staying quiet, and he worries about financial liability to his district.

"When you start receiving communications with legal implications, and you are getting directives from the state not to communicate about something, it sends a message that this is a tricky environment," Edwards said. "There is that concern about legal proceedings and liability. You start talking about litigation, and it does make people fearful. They shut down. No one wants to cost themselves or their district money they don't have."

The warnings also are taking a toll on Carroll County Superintendent Billy Joe Ferguson, who has been outspoken about the extreme financial needs of his school district.

Ferguson gained national attention early this year, when he wrote to Gov. Phil Bryant and described "wretched conditions" in his school. Many of Carroll County's 1,000 students ride to school on aging buses, including some without air conditioning. They go to class in 20-year-old portable classrooms and read outdated textbooks. And Ferguson agreed not to take his old salary of about $85,000 because he said the district couldn't afford it; he brings home just $18,000.

While Ferguson said he is desperate to secure more money for his students, he won't talk to voters about Initiative 42.

"I'm passionate, but as an educator, I'm a person who follows the rules," Ferguson said. "I'm not even talking to my friends about it. I just don't feel like I can. And I hate that."

Ferguson worries that the flurry of legal communications he's received are meant to silence teachers, principals and other school employees—both on and off the clock—and that they may just work.

"All this is going to hurt the effort to pass 42," Ferguson said. "I think the people who are against it know that. People who don't want to see this passed know that if school people aren't talking about it, then there are a lot of people who just aren't going to hear about it. People in these small communities, they listen to educators. And there are some people out there who fear that."

Efforts to restrict the political speech of public educators have also occurred outside Mississippi. In Arizona, for example, a law prohibiting teachers from speaking out against budget cuts and other education policy issues included a $5,000 fine. That law passed the state Senate but never came up for a vote in the state House. In Mississippi, a similar House bill proposed last session would have imposed a penalty of $10,000 on teachers participating in political activity during school hours. The bill died in committee.

A proposed Kansas law would have made it illegal for professors and other employees of state universities to use their titles when stating political opinions in newspapers and other publications. That law made it to the hearing stage in the state House, but no other action was taken.

Lack of Tax Dollars

Opponents of Initiative 42, including many Republican leaders, have expressed concern that the amendment strips spending control away from the Legislature and could force cuts to other state services, including public safety, health and the community-college system.

In early July, Republican Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, summoned agency heads to Jackson for a brief meeting. He told agency heads to begin identifying how they would cut budgets by 7.8 percent or raise fees if 42 passes.

Community-college leaders, including Kell Smith, director of communications and legislative services for the Mississippi Community College Board, have expressed alarm about potential budget cuts, even though the state's funding formula actually ties community-college funding to K-12 funding. Under a 2007 state law, community colleges are supposed to get a per student state allocation midway between what the state gives K-12 and four-year college students.

That means that increasing K-12 funding should actually increase community-college funding, if the Legislature follows the law. But the state hasn't funded community colleges at the midway level since the law was passed, Smith said.

Smith said his agency is "very concerned" about potential cuts across the community-college system if state K-12 funding is done at a higher level.

He said when Frierson asked community-college presidents to plan for cuts of 7.8 percent, the 15 colleges said they would cut a variety of positions. Some would cut program offerings, while others said they would have to cut athletics or student services. Some reported they would pass the cost on to students through tuition hikes.

Smith said his agency knows K-12 education could use the money that Initiative 42 would guarantee.

"We hope folks will realize that all of education in Mississippi is underfunded," Smith said. "We are all in this together. This isn't easy for any of us."

The state's 15 community colleges serve more than 74,000 students, including many who are first-generation students from low-income families. Community colleges also offer adult education programs, including GED courses, and technical courses in fields including welding, drafting and automotive technology, according to information in the community college board's 2014 annual report.

Advocates of Initiative 42 have repeatedly denied that its passage would force cuts, saying the Legislature can implement the funding over several years and that money would come from future increases in the state's revenue and other tax collections. Increases would need to be in place by 2022, and then maintained in the future, according to information outlined in the ballot initiative.

There's also the reality that at the same time the state says funding public schools is tough, some Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, are pushing for phased-in tax cuts that would further reduce available money.

Game of Musical Chairs

Thomas V. O'Brien, a professor of educational studies and research at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Mississippi is operating from a sense of scarcity that unnecessarily pits state agencies against each other.

"It's like a game of musical chairs, and the university presidents, community-college presidents, health-care administrators, and others are worried that they won't get to sit in a chair when the music stops," O'Brien said. "But all we have to do is add more chairs, and everyone can sit down. Leaders with foresight would see this moment as an opportunity to change the discussion to one about investing in our state in ways that make it a better place for all of us to live, work and recreate."

That could come, he said, with a more flexible attitude about tax increases.

"No one wants to say the dirty words—'more taxes'—that would make this issue go away," he said.

Meanwhile, school officials in cash-strapped districts like Ferguson's are waiting to see what happens, quietly. Prayer is also sometimes involved.

"I actually pray for things to keep working in this district. I have roofs on school buildings that I worry about, because I know I don't have money to fix them," Ferguson said. "I pray for the buses to keep running, because there's not money to buy new ones. When MAEP passed, I saw it as God providing something that I really, really needed for our students. Guess we will have to see what happens."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

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