Senate bucks leadership, backs more ed funds

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Senate voted Wednesday to provide local school districts $81 million more than the amount supported by that chamber’s leadership and by Gov. Haley Barbour.
Senators voted 29-22 to accept the House plan to provide the additional funds for kindergarten through 12th grade schools.
The only Northeast Mississippi senator to oppose the extra funding was Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo.
Collins said she supported the position of Barbour and Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, because “these times require budgetary restraints even with our most favored programs and commitments.”
She said she hopes the state superintendent would work for more administrative savings so the additional funds could go to the classroom teachers.
Collins and a majority of the 52-member chamber’s 27 Republicans voted for the lower funding level. Six Republicans, including Gary Jackson of Kilmichael, joined the Democrats in supporting the additional money for the schools.
While the bill provides an additional $81 million for the schools, $16 million of that total is money to shore up the state’s retirement system. In recent days, there has been speculation that it might not be needed.
The debate centered on $95 million in jobs funds the federal Congress provided to the local school districts last summer to help fill teaching positions that were eliminated because of budget cuts.
The debate over the jobs funds goes back to the last legislative session, when lawmakers and Barbour agreed to provide the local school districts an extra $82 million if Congress approved additional stimulus funds for the states.
After the state got the stimulus funds, Barbour cited a technicality in the law to prevent the school districts from getting that money. But the school districts also received the jobs funds to offset the lost of stimulus funds that Barbour withheld.
For the current session, both the House and Senate leadership have said they want to provide level funding for schools in what is another tough budget year. But Davis has said that $65 million of the federal jobs funds should be included in reaching the level funding goal of $2.09 billion.
A majority of the House and Senate has rejected counting the jobs funds as part of the level funding amount.
Davis said it would not harm the schools to count the money because, based on information provided by the state Department of Education, the local school districts have spent only $10.8 million of the jobs funds for the current school year.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said he was not confident of the accuracy of that information, since it “was self-reported data” from the school districts.
Plus, he said some school districts still might need to use the funds this school year, especially since they are now paying about a $1 per gallon more for diesel fuel.
Burnham said he believes the state board “will not be comfortable” in having the federal funds count as part of the local school district’s state appropriations. He said the board could take a position on the issue in the near future.
On Wednesday, the Senate majority did not put up much of a fight when Davis added language to the education funding bill ensuring it does not go to the governor.
Instead it will go to conference, where House and Senate budget leaders will try to work out an overall budget agreement at the end of the session.
“The majority of the Legislature – in both chambers – has spoken that we want to spend more money on education,” said Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford. “That is a priority.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, asked Davis if he would uphold the position supported by the full Senate in the conference process. Davis said, “My position is I will respect the Senate to the best of my ability,” but said he would also try to support a position that the governor would not veto.
Even at level funding, which the House and Senate have now voted to support, education is $231 million short of full funding as determined by the state’s funding formula.

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