By Carmen K. Sisson/The Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS — As Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science celebrates its 25th year, it’s also facing a common problem among schools — escalating costs, a decrease in state appropriations and an ever-increasing need for public support.
In recent years, they’ve come to rely more heavily upon the financial backing of the MSMS Foundation and private donors, but this year, they’re bringing their message to the masses, hoping to generate interest in both their mission and their plight.
The school, founded in 1987 by the Mississippi Legislature to serve gifted juniors and seniors from around Mississippi, is funded solely by the state, which means even though it is a public school, it has no authority to levy taxes for funding.
Before the economic downturn, MSMS received an average of $5 million to $6 million from the state each year, but last year, that was cut to $4.35 million. Room and board — at $1,000 a year — helps, but the fee is waived for 30 to 35 percent of the students, who come from low-income households.
Admissions Counselor Wade Leonard estimates they’ve been operating on close to 15 percent less than what they need for the past four years, and it’s taking a toll.
This year, for the first time in the school’s history, the incoming junior class was limited.
MSMS Executive Director Charles Brown said he had a strong applicant pool and could easily have enrolled 145 to 150 juniors, but because of funding, he only accepted 127 incoming students, bringing total enrollment to 235. He’d like to reach a point where he enrolls 270 to 300 students per year, if the economy rebounds and state appropriations increase.
Athletics and extracurricular activities are also feeling the brunt, with students participating in fewer competitions and academic field trips.
Because of the funding crunch, the MSMS Foundation has stepped forward to play a more visible role in fundraising, especially since the state passed the room and board fee requirement in 2008.
They’ve worked to offset the costs for needy students as well as to obtain grants for equipment and infrastructure upgrades. They still continue their original mission, too — helping students.
Foundation Board President Cindy Henderson, an MSMS graduate of the Class of 1995, experienced the board’s largesse while she was in school and needed money to complete a science fair project.
It was only a few hundred dollars, she recalls, but with three students in school, her parents couldn’t afford it. Her project ended up placing in the top two percent at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Toronto, earning $10,500 in scholarships.
“My personal goal is to make sure those sorts of opportunities are available to all MSMS students and to continue to help those students dream big,” Henderson said via email Monday.
The school is dreaming big as well, said Katie Porter, coordinator of alumni relations. They hope to raise at least $40,000, but a five-year matching grant from the Phil Hardin Foundation in Meridian will give them $100,000 for every $100,000 they manage to raise.
And so, they’re dropping in on businesses and organizations they hope will help them reach their goal.
The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau has voted to give $5,000 to the cause, and school officials are planning to make a presentation to the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors as well.
A celebration gala is planned for Nov. 2-3, when alumni and supporters will gather for what will be part-homecoming, part-fundraiser. Amid the meet and greets and cardboard boat races, there will also be a dinner — their primary fundraiser of the year.
But there is another point to their message, Brown said. They would like the community to see what MSMS has to offer and show the human investment behind the dollars.
A common misconception, he said, is that MSMS is an elite prep school, but at least 40 percent of the student body receives some form of financial assistance, with students from all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds coming to take advantage of the academic challenges the school offers. Between 15 and 20 percent of the students hail from the Golden Triangle area.
“Columbus has been such a good home for us for these 25 years, and it’s always been a nice, warm environment for our students,” Brown said. “But we are also an important part of the local economy, and this economic downturn is tough on everyone.”
He said at least 20 percent of funds raised will go toward immediate needs, and the remainder will go toward building a long-term endowment.
“I would encourage anybody to come and look for themselves — we’ll be glad to show folks around,” Brown said. “Sure, we think we’re a gem for the Golden Triangle, and families that would not know about Columbus otherwise tend to see and appreciate that Columbus is just a neat location for academically talented kids.”
Carter said even if people can’t contribute financially, she hopes they will support the school in other ways.
“Our big thing is we really need our area to get behind our school,” she said. “We’ve done a lot for the state of Mississippi, and it would be nice to know our school has people behind it.”
Roughly 2,700 students have graduated from MSMS over the past 25 years. Students are admitted based upon a number of criteria, including an ACT score of above 20 and a combined math and science average of 90 or higher. Students with grades lower than 80 in any high school subject are not admitted.