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Arts school’s gone too far to turn back, local officials say

Despite talk by some state lawmakers of scaling back or possiblyabandoning the Mississippi School of the Arts, Brookhaven leaderssay the project has gone too far to turn back now.

Since word of school concerns surfaced Wednesday during alegislative budget hearing, Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett said hehad spoken with Rep. Charlie Capps and Rep. Billy McCoy,appropriations and education committee leaders. Barnett said he hadbeen told the school may not open as a “Cadillac,” but it would goforward.

“They are our friends,” Barnett said of Capps and McCoy.

With a tight state funding picture, Barnett said the focus willnow be on art school foundation efforts. The foundation is in theprocess of being formed.

“They are depending on us getting private funds forconstruction,” Barnett said. “We’ve got from now until thelegislative session to show we’ve got some funding.”

Local people with connections to the school were surprised tohear news of possible closure, scaled-back plans or delayedopening. They said too much has been done already to change plansnow.

“They’ve already gotten our money and our buildings,” said MayorBill Godbold.

The mayor pointed out the campus has been turned over to thestate and work has begun on restoring the historic buildings.

Approximately $4.5 million in local funds has set aside for theschool. Of that, money from a $3 million bond issue has been sentto the state and the city is holding $1.5 million in money receivedfrom HUD for campus improvements.

“We’re doling out some of it now,” Godbold said.

Godbold said the city is looking at ditches, sewer services,elevated parking and other needs for the school. School changescould affect those efforts.

“It’d break down the scheme of things,” Godbold said.

Godbold went on to question the state budget planning process.He said it seems revenue projections and other indicators shouldhave allowed state officials to see a shortfall in funding.

“It’s beyond me that they can come up that short,” Godboldsaid.

Godbold said Brookhaven High School is preparing to teach corecurriculum classes for arts school students. The mayor alsoquestioned the status of money allocated for BHS improvements.

“What are they going to do about that?” the mayor asked,referring to $3.5 million allocated for BHS.

Barnett said there were no problems with BHS money.

“It’s in the school,” he said.

Dr. Kim Sessums, vice-chairman of a former advisory board forthe arts school, said school supporters need to remain positive andschool plans need to move forward. With school director Dr. VickiBodenhamer in place, the advisory board Sessums served on has beendisbanded, he said.

“The whole concept has gone too far to back up and for them tosay they’re not going to do this now,” Sessums said.

Sessums said word about the arts school has spread, and there isnationwide interest in the project. He said changes in plans couldcause a setback in private fund-raising efforts for the school.