Lawmakers hear from Miss. School of Arts backers

BROOKHAVEN — When some legislators gathered recently to take stock of the Mississippi School of the Arts, the devil stood beside Rep. Bob Evans.

The Monticello Democrat posed tough questions, assuming support for Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge the school with the Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus and doing his best to poke holes in local officials’ defense.

Of course, he was faking it, but it was exactly what everyone needed to hear.

“I’m just playing devil’s advocate. I guess it’s the lawyer in me,” Evans said. “These are questions that we’re going to hear in the Legislature.”

Every fact was checked and every angle considered during the tour of the campus that saw a handful of southwest Mississippi legislators and local MSA supporters begin the foundation of a defense for the school, which will face its greatest threat when the Legislature convenes in January.

The last attempt to move the school out of Brookhaven was defeated in the House earlier this year, but the new threat has the governor’s support and may be much graver.

MSA and its supporters are building a case based on common sense and the availability of money. Although the governor said moving MSA to Columbus would save around $1 million, a deeper study of the proposal reveals the savings just aren’t there, supporters contend.

With the proposed MSMS merger site on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women unprepared to receive MSA’s 130 students, construction and renovation that would likely cost in the millions would be necessary to provide living, residential and performance spaces for arts students.

Savings realized in the closure of the Brookhaven campus would likely be swallowed immediately in construction projects, and $25 million in taxpayer investments at MSA would be lost to the city of Brookhaven because of a clause in the property deed.

Regardless of construction and property issues, MSA Director Suzanne Hirsch said moving arts students to Columbus would require a $2.1 million budget increase for MSMS. The current MSA budget is only slightly higher at $2.8 million.

“If you can show me there will be substantial savings, it might make the argument at least viable, but the word is substantial,” Evans said. “You’re talking about saving $500,000 to $700,000 in a $6 billion budget. What is that, one-hundredth of 1 percent?”

Money isn’t the only issue.

Rep. Bill Pigott, R-Tylertown, said he was impressed by the quality of MSA’s instructors and students. He said the school provides a niche not found in other sectors of public education.

“This is a totally different environment you would have to reconstruct in another part of the state,” said Pigott. “We’re going to look at the numbers on the whole thing. I’m looking at it a whole lot closer now.”

Pigott briefly discussed the possibility of moving MSMS to Brookhaven instead of MSA to Columbus, an aggressive option some local arts school supporters have touted throughout MSA’s many trials in the Legislature. Pigott alluded to what local supporters have shouted all along, that Brookhaven is a smaller, safer community more conducive to high school students that Columbus, with its alcohol sales and college environment.

“There is a plus here to the environment in Brookhaven,” Pigott said.

Moving MSA out of Brookhaven would also cause a serious economic loss to southwest Mississippi, supporters say. The school’s economic impact on the area has been estimated at between $6 and $7 million, with more than 65 jobs sustained.

Making things worse is the fact that the Golden Triangle area in Columbus has seen far more economic development than southwest Mississippi.

“We have not gotten the jobs like the Gold Triangle and other parts of Mississippi, but we’ve done the work. We’re in the second stage, and we don’t want to send a mixed signal by losing MSA,” said Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Cliff Brumfield.

MSA supporters plan to further develop their defense as January approaches.

The school plans to invite more legislators to tour the campus and see the arts in action firsthand. It worked for Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, who got her first look inside the school’s classrooms, dance floors and performance halls.

“It’s beautiful. I wish something like this had been around when I was in school,” she said. “We definitely need to keep this in southwest Mississippi. It’s a jewel. We’ll fight for it the way we always fight for it.”

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Information from: The Daily Leader, http://www.dailyleader.com

Adam Northam/Brookhaven Daily Leader