Education Under Attack | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Education Under Attack

Anticipation stalked the halls of the Mississippi State Capitol. Agency heads showed up, educators camped out, advocates for children and families rallied. It was clearly crunch time. Lawmakers had only a few days to pass a budget, and they still had to fund the big-ticket items.

On May 1, legislators went into conferences to hammer out deals on which the House, Senate and governor must agree. Many showed up casually dressed, except for the always-GQ Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, who, when teased about being so sharp, said, "I'm going to get comfortable after this."

Flaggs says this stress is business as usual: "I haven't seen anything this year that looks any different from any of my other 16 years. You keep negotiating and negotiating until you come up with a compromise."

Easier said than done.

"It's tough," Flaggs acknowledged, "because we have to make tough choices. Usually you fund your big items first: education (K-12), IHL and community colleges, and Medicaid."

In 2003, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove asked lawmakers to fund education early, and they did. This year, State Superintendent of Education Henry Johnson has persistently asked for early full funding, but lawmakers have fought, often along party lines, over secondary education.

Public education accounts for more than 60 percent of the state's budget. The House's $2 billion budget fully funds secondary education and 8 percent teacher pay raises; the Senate has adopted Gov. Haley Barbour's deficit-cutting budget, which funds K-12 at $161 million less than fiscal 2004. Barbour said raising taxes is the "enemy of controlled spending," and suggests using $43 million in increased state revenue toward funding secondary education.

"We're going to maintain the House position on education," Flaggs said. "We think it's crucial to the future of the state."

Lawmakers are hung up over their spending philosophies as they try to agree on a workable $3.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins July 1. Senators have talked of laying off state workers. Each 1,000 employees costs $30 million. They also want to push a number of current Medicaid recipients off the program and onto the federal Medicare program, but as many as 5,000 of them might not be immediately eligible for Medicare. Some senators also favor using tobacco money won after the state sued the tobacco industry and some of the $54 million in transportation money earmarked to improve casino roads.

The House's education budget contains about $36 million in fees and tax increases. Most senators and Barbour say they will not raise taxes—any taxes. Senators accuse the House of not having enough "real money," saying they are relying on projected state growth, and some representatives say the Senate is relying too much on one-time money.

The Legislature had until 8 p.m. May 1 to file new bills. Just before that deadline, Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, declared that he was "outraged" and "appalled" to have just learned that school districts had $349 million in rainy-day funds, but that some superintendents have given teachers pink slips, anyway.

School districts across the state passed out nearly 4,000 pink slips to teachers and other school employees after lawmakers had not funded education by April 15, the deadline for schools to renew teachers' contracts. Chaney said that superintendents are using teachers and students as "political pawns."

House Education Committee Chairman Bubba Pierce, D-Leakesville, passionately objected to Chaney's accusation that school districts had been holding out. "Public education has been constantly attacked this session, and I'm sick of it," he said, emphasizing his words by swinging his arm in the air. Schools are asked to set aside 5 percent of their state funding each year, said Judy Rhodes, director of the state Department of Education's office of educational accountability.

The funds that Chaney referred to were actually left over from FY2003 and total $349,109,580.31, but Chaney said there could be as much as $375 million now. He said he only found out about the funds Friday, although he had asked the state for the information a couple of weeks earlier. Rhodes said she doesn't remember Chaney asking for the information: "We always respond when the Legislature asks us for something." She said she had spoken with Pierce about the funds and provided information to the governor's office. "It's public record," she said. "Anyone who asks can get a copy."

Pierce said that the funds are not the state's, that they belong to school districts, but Chaney said districts could be asked to use up to 10 percent of the money to cover shortfalls.

Lawmakers filed "dummy" budget bills to buy more time, then met again on Sunday with less drama, but still could not agree on money. If a budget has not been passed by May 4, lawmakers could vote to extend the session, which is scheduled to end May 9, for 30 more days.

"We'll get it," Flaggs said, "by May 9. That's Mother's Day; we all need to be at home with our mothers."

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