Compromise will allow LEAP to continue with fewer state funds
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The University of Mississippi-based Project LEAP, which provides adult literacy training for women on welfare, has survived legislative attempts to dismantle the program and shift its responsibilities to the state’s 15 community and junior colleges.
Legislation passed both the state House and Senate earlier in the session to transfer the more than $6 million in funding for Project LEAP to the community colleges. Despite the passage of that legislation, a final compromise between the state agencies involved will allow LEAP to continue, but with about $2.5 million less in funds from the state.
Those funds will be used by the state Department of Economic and Community Development through the community colleges to provide job-skills training. The loss of state funds comes after two government reports criticized LEAP, saying the program has high costs and is inefficient in moving people off welfare and into jobs.
“We’re hoping the community and junior colleges will be able to provide jobs-skills training, and we will see some impact in moving women off the welfare rolls and into the job market,” Said Sen. Grey Ferris, speaking of what he hopes the compromise will do.
No more state funding
Ferris, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced the bill to transfer all LEAP funds to the community and junior colleges. Under the compromise, LEAP would continue to contract with the Mississippi Department of Human Services to provide adult literacy for women on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But the program would no longer receive state funds.
Rep. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, who helped work out the compromise, said there is a possibility some of the state money previously earmarked for LEAP could be used to help with Mississippi’s industrial training efforts. The Department of Economic and Community Development had requested $6 million in additional money from the state Legislature this fiscal year for industrial training. Citing tight budget restraints, the Legislature did not fund that request. And for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, the Legislature provided DECD $7.5 million for industrial training instead of the $11 million it requested.
The industrial training money is used to help get the work force ready for new and expanding industry. Jimmy Heidel, executive director of Department of Economic and Community Development, said the offer of the jobs-specific training is a recruitment tool to attract industry to the state. He also said not providing enough funding for jobs-specific or industrial training is sending out the wrong message.
While Heidel is concerned about the amount of state funds he will get, LEAP (Learn Earn and Prosper) will depend on federal money. The state general fund money LEAP had been getting was used to garner about a four-to-one federal match. Under the agreement, LEAP, which is expected to have a budget of about $3.1 million, will have to provide its own match money.
It will provide the match money by selling the program to various entities, such as departments of corrections or school systems. The Department of Agriculture also pays LEAP to provide nutritional information to the clients the program serves.
LEAP serves its clients in a unique way. LEAP sites are set up throughout the state. The clients, most of whom average a fourth grade learning level, are served through a combination of satellite instruction and teachers who are located at each site.
Ed Meek, director of marketing and public relations at Ole Miss, said the $240 satellite dishes provide the opportunity to set up a site literally anywhere in the state.
“You can put one in the back of the car and go anywhere,” said Meek, who created the LEAP program.
But the LEAP program has not earned everyone’s praise.
“We have squandered millions in a program that is not working,” said Ferris earlier in the session. A report by PEER, a legislative watchdog group, and a report by the federal Office of the Inspector General have been critical of the program.
The federal report suggests repayment of $747,031 in federal funds and further review of an additional $1.1 million for possible repayment. The PEER report is critical of the program for its costs of $1,766 per participant compared to $222 for a similar community college program. The federal report went on to say the program did not move people off welfare.
The federal report also cited the program, which was started in 1993, for trips to such places as Las Vegas and Vienna, Austria.
But Meek said all the trips were for legitimate reasons. He said it costs more to operate the LEAP program because of the poor educational background of the clients.
He added the demands for payments by the Office of the Inspector General are over “interpretation issues.” For instance, he said the Office of the Inspector General is asking for repayment of money for a trip LEAP officials made to Atlanta at the request of the Department of Human Services to provide a LEAP demonstration. Meek said LEAP officials made the trip because Human Services, which is providing the bulk of the money for the program, requested the demonstration.
“It is nothing illegal,” Meek said. “When it is settled, and if we owe money, we will be happy to pay it back.”