EDITORIAL: Looking ahead to 2012

The ax has not fully nor finally fallen on employees of Mississippi school districts sweating funding levels for the 2011 fiscal year (the 2010-2011 academic year), but administrators and trustees have an eye already on fiscal year 2012, which could make today’s situations look flush by comparison.
State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham leads the concerned cadre who know that budget revenue projections and expiring federal stimulus funds together paint a dreary financial picture for all of the state’s 152 public school districts in 2012.
Burnham, a former Mississippi teacher and Biloxi superintendent, is in his second tenure as state superintendent. He has seen school finance issues from every angle in his decades of experience, and he expressed serious concern about what additional reductions and cuts in the bleak 2012 outlook could require.
Burnham, who returned for a second time to the state superintendency earlier this year, had been dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi and for a time was a district superintendent in North Carolina. He met Thursday with the editorial board of the Daily Journal.
What Burnham keeps in mind is a longer-term view of school finance than most people want to know, but the continuing recession and Mississippi’s struggling tax collections demand hard advance planning:
n First, Burnham offers a reminder that the federal stimulus expires before the 2012 budget takes effect, and Mississippi stands to take a $128 million hit to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the basic statewide financing mechanism. Criticize the method and the politics that passed the stimulus, but Mississippi lawmakers snapped it up like Christmas cookies to bridge gaping holes in the budget this year and for 2011. Burnham noted that losing the $128 million has not been calculated for its impact on other funds drawn down by a state match.
n None of the projections so far calculated include the impact of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the mere threat of it has damaged the Mississippi coast tourism industry, including casino tax revenues. Burnham believes the spill could affect state revenue collections which, in turn, could affect school funding for both 2011 and 2012.
n School employment will decline statewide in 2010-2011 and in 2012.
Burnham also offered a cautionary observation: The state department and most districts have reduced costs to the maximum by allowing vacated positions to remain unfilled and by reducing administrative spending. The next cuts are more likely to have dire impact – reducing courses offered, raising class sizes, and further reducing any financial edge enjoyed by locally generated resources.
Parents and students should pay attention to Burnham’s cautions. The schools’ funding might become an issue in the 2011 statewide elections, and Burnham’s views don’t carry a partisan spin.

NEMS Daily Journal