Review: State fares well in honoring Ayers commitment

JACKSON – The state of Mississippi is, for the most part, honoring the commitment it made when it settled the long-running Ayers college desegregation lawsuit, a legislative oversight panel reported Thursday.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review on Thursday issued a generally favorable report about the state’s performance in meeting terms of the settlement.
But it did note that the state was $16.9 million behind in funding the commitment to academic programs at the three historically black universities because the Legislature did not fully fund a portion of the 2002 settlement during an appeals process.
A certain segment of the Ayers plaintiffs was not satisfied with the settlement and initiated an appeals process that continued until 2004.
The PEER report recommended “by the conclusion of fiscal year 2021 (the scheduled completion of the settlement agreement) the Legislature should … appropriate the difference in funds.”
During the period before the appeals process was exhausted, the PEER report said the Legislature made a “good faith” effort to honor the settlement agreement.
The Legislature passed bonds issues totaling $75 million to finance capital improvements and spent about $70 million to expand and add academic programs.
JSU was labeled a comprehensive university and new programs were added at all the schools.
The original lawsuit was filed in 1975 by Jake Ayers, who claimed the education his child was receiving at one of the three historically black universities was inferior to that offered at the predominantly white schools.
The lawsuit wound its way through the federal court system, including to the Supreme Court, before state officials, led by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and then-Attorney General Mike Moore reached agreement in 2002 with a group of the plaintiffs, including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson.
Through the settlement, the state is supposed to provide roughly $500 million in support for academic programs, developmental programs, capital improvements and programs to attract racial diversity to Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley.
PEER cited efforts to create a private endowment for the three schools as an area in which the settlement commitment is not being met. The plan was to create a $35 million private endowment that would provide interest earnings to the three schools for “other race” marketing.
Once the universities obtained a 10 percent “other race” enrollment for three consecutive years, they would receive the endowment funds to be used for educational programs.
Thus far only $1 million has been raised for the private endowment.
PEER recommended the state College Board offer strategies to the three universities for raising additional income. “In the event that those efforts fail,” the report said, “the IHL Board should make recommendations to the Legislature on what additional efforts may be taken to foster interest and contributions to the private endowment.”
Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, chair of the House Universities and Colleges Committee, said he plans to have hearings this fall on how the Ayers settlement is being enacted.
“We need to just make sure we have an understanding of what is being done,” said Buck, who wants to see if additional legislation is needed.
In the Senate, Universities and Colleges Chair Doug Davis, R-Herando, who also is vice chair of Appropriations, said that even in the current tough budget times, legislative leaders have tried to honor their commitment to the settlement.
“There is going to be nothing easy concerning the budget in the coming years,” Davis said. “As far as I know, everything will be on the table. But that being said, a federal court order is involved with Ayers.
“I feel like we will abide by that court order.”
Gov. Haley Barbour has exempted Ayers funding from the budget cuts he has made thus far because of declining state revenue collections.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal