OUR OPINION: Community Colleges seek progress on mid-level funds

By NEMS Daily Journal

Almost every major state agency and service provider makes the rounds of civic clubs, newspapers, television stations and other large venues during legislative sessions, making their case for stronger public funding.
Mississippi’s 15 community and junior colleges – represented by statewide community colleges chief Eric Clark – make an articulate and persuasive argument for a goal already adopted unanimously during the 2007 legislative session called “mid-level funding.”
The formula is straightforward: Fund community colleges on a per student basis that is halfway between K-12 public schools and the regional universities – Delta State, Valley State, MUW and Alcorn State.
The formula, supporters note, has the same status in law as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program which, like mid-level, is underfunded despite language telling the Legislature the program “shall be” funded, the words that supposedly leave no wiggle room. The wiggle is pronounced for both funding formulas, in part because of the recession that began in late 2007 and its continuing effect on Mississippi’s economy and tax revenues.
Clark, in an interview at the Daily Journal last week, said reaching the mid-level funding of $5,643 would cost $77 million in additional appropriations for the community colleges.
Clark, however, is more pragmatic than some advocates who go to the Legislature seeking money; he said the 15-school system would settle for “significant” progress toward reaching mid-level funding, and that provides space for negotiations with the Legislature and governor.
Clark, a former legislator and secretary of state, understands the process and the bargaining that eventually goes on in committees and among members of the House and Senate.
Clark cites encouraging but not huge increases in sales tax revenues measured against projections for the 2012 budget cycle, which ends June 30 and that will factor in projections for the 2013 budget, beginning July 1. In the first seven months of the 2012 cycle, collections are ahead of projections by $85.3 million, suggesting an upturn in spending, which logically has some basis in a strengthening economy.
The record on mid-level funding has been mostly downhill, with the gap between appropriations and the goal ranging from a low of 16 percent in 2009 to 39 percent in the 2012 budget.
In addition, the whole system dramatically has lost ground in per student funding since 2000 – from $4,522 to $3,424 in 2012. In roughly the same period enrollment has surged to more than 85,000, with about 250,000 Mississippians taking some kind of course – academic or work force – every year through a community or junior college.
The impact, Clark notes, is the fastest turnaround on state investment of any educational program.
The community colleges historically have enjoyed strong support within their districts, the zones designated by the state so that each region has a comity college.
Northeast, Itawamba, Northeast and East Mississippi community colleges all enroll students from Northeast Mississippi counties. Their combined enrollment is about 25,000 larger than either the University of Mississippi or Mississippi State, the two largest comprehensive universities statewide.
The key to getting legislators’ attention on funding issues is constituent contact, and that would include students, faculty, parents, trustees, alumni, county boards of supervisors and the business community, which benefits from the work force services provided, especially at the community colleges in Northeast Mississippi.
If revenue collections continue to increase above projections the Legislature will spend the money; we hope a fair share can be appropriated for the under-funded community and junior colleges.