EDITORIAL: Big budget hit

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s authorized public education spending for the 2011 budget year, which begins in two months, arguably looks in many ways like the spending levels for 2010. But looks can deceive, and that is almost certainly the case with district-by-district spending in the new budget.
While the numbers may appear relatively painless, and in some cases actually increase, the larger view should compare 2011 with what full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program would require and what was appropriated for the beginning of the 2010 budget year.
The statewide MAEP full funding difference is calculated between $232 million and $252 million, depending on what’s counted in the formula. Either way, the underfunding is significant.
In addition, the 2010 education budget was cut 11.3 percent, $188.1 million, from its starting 2010 figure, an even clearer picture of the 2011 budget impact.
It is a fact that full funding for education would have been a stretch based on trends and projections of state tax collections, but cuts mean some school districts are cutting teaching personnel, including teaching assistants, and, in some cases, certified faculty.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the statewide advocacy group, Parents’ Campaign, said Thursday her 60,000-member organization’s projection is a loss of 1,000 certified teaching positions statewide and even more teaching assistants. Loome said some school districts have chosen to eliminate some or all assistants’ positions. Loome, a former classroom teacher in Clinton, said some districts began running out of money this fiscal year with cuts made by Gov. Barbour, required in the state constitution. The cuts, partially restored by legislative action, required widespread dipping into cash reserves and/or borrowing, with some poorer districts quickly running out of reserves and pledging 2011 revenues against loans.
Most of Northeast Mississippi’s school districts have been budgeted for significantly less than in the original 2010 funds compared to both scenarios in play for 2011:
– House Bill 1622 sets MAEP spending at $2.041 billion, based on state-projected revenue;
– House Bill 1059 projects MAEP spending at $2.069 billion, including a contingency fund that would come from part of an anticipated $187 million federal appropriation under the stimulus program. The higher figure won’t be an option unless Congress approves the spending.
All districts remain in the grips of challenges, and short of a revenue increase, hard times seem likely to continue.