By Bobby Harrison and Chris Kieffer
JACKSON – Both the House and Senate are beginning work in earnest this week on a state budget that is scheduled to be completed near the end of the 2014 session in late March or early April.
Some public education advocates and several Northeast Mississippi superintendents are not happy with the opening round of that process.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, expressed disappointment via email that the House Appropriations Committee passed a budget Tuesday that essentially level funds the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of the basics for operating local school districts.
The proposal, expected to be voted on today by the full House, does include $25 million for the first year of a multiyear pay teacher raise that the House passed earlier this session.
While numbers were not available Tuesday, House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the total House general fund proposal will be $5.96 billion, or a little less than $100 million more than appropriated during the 2013 session.
But Frierson pointed out those numbers can change. Often, late in the session before a final budget agreement is reached, House and Senate leaders agree to raise the revenue estimate, which provides additional money to appropriate. Frierson said it is too early to determine whether the estimate will be raised this year.
“We have a House budget that doesn’t depend on any new revenue,” Frierson said. “It is not pretty, but it works.”
Loome said from an education standpoint the House proposal does not work. She said Tuesday that state revenue collections took a dramatic dip during the recession that started in 2008. She pointed out that now revenue collections are exceeding the prerecession levels, but the House education funding proposal is almost $100 million below what local school districts got before the recession.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is more than $290 million short of full funding for the current year and more than $1.2 billion short since 2008, based on the formula in state law.
Some Northeast Mississippi superintendents also expressed concerns with the House funding levels.
Itawamba County Superintendent Michael Nanney said that the district has almost 60 fewer full-time employees now than it did in 2006-07, when it had 562 positions. In 2006-07, the district had student-teacher ratios of 18 to 1. Now it is about 23.5 to 1.
“It forces me to make a decision between buying textbooks for a fifth-grade class or buying a new school bus,” Nanney said, noting the district has cut about all that it can.
Amory Superintendent Tony Cook and Monroe County’s Scott Cantrell each said they’ve had to cut positions and delay bus purchases.
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden added that districts have higher personnel costs each year because individual teachers earn about a $500 increase for an additional year of experience.
“Level funding is a code word for you are being cut,” Loden said. “We have to absorb the cost increase for personnel. Paper, textbooks, fuel, utilities are all more expensive than they were in 2008. Everything you have is more expensive.”
The Senate leadership has yet to reveal its funding level for education.
Once a funding level is agreed to by the legislative leadership, the rank-and-file members of the House and Senate have little leeway to make changes under rules adopted by the Republicans when they garnered a majority in the two chambers after the 2011 elections.