OUR OPINION: School funding issues require thorough review

By NEMS Daily Journal

Gov. Phil Bryant’s executive budget recommendations announced Tuesday reflect Mississippi’s extraordinarily tight financial situation.
His plans for reductions in state spending in almost all programs except for Corrections and Transportation seem likely to unfold in some form unless there’s a surge in tax collections in a rebounding economy.
Bryant proposes further cuts to funding for universities, community colleges and for public education.
Bryant contends that asking districts to use $73 million in local district reserve funds is the equivalent of putting $73 million into the Mississippi Adequate Education Program from state sources, but it is not the same.
We recognize the probable necessity of absorbing education cuts, but let’s not pretend that shifting money for local districts’ reserves and plans is the same as a state appropriation. The local reserve money, while raised by taxation, is not the same as a state commitment.
In some cases, districts’ reserves are at current levels only because tax millages were increased to offset earlier state funding losses.
Before legislators act on that particular recommendation, we hope the current balances in school district reserve funds are calculated and used in the debate, as well as balances expected at the peak of tax collections in the next fiscal cycle.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, former chairman of House Education, said the $615 million cited by Bryant as the working balance probably has declined as districts statewide have spent down balances for a variety of commitments. He is almost certainly correct, but the balances also will go back up as current taxes are paid.
Bryant, of course, is following the lead of former Gov. Haley Barbour in proposing to tap district reserves. Barbour made that proposal in 2004, winning a legislative deal and using district reserves to offset state cuts. In 2004, $123 million in previous state obligations was shifted to local districts.
The reserves are set aside for emergencies, usually construed as natural disasters or severe damage from other causes, in some cases for district-funded capital improvements, and sometimes are spent for operating costs if other funds are not available.
If routinely spent under state mandate the reserves might as well be given to the state every year.
While acknowledging the scarcity of funds for all state services, we hope legislators will examine every option before creating an even larger gap in what the state commits to MAEP and the commitment required for full funding. The difference is about $250 million now, and if state funds are reduced, the gap will widen.
In the long term, consistency in the funding effort becomes essential.

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