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State fine arts school still has hills to climb

Since Thursday’s headlines about funding problems for theMississippi School of the Arts and comments by one senatorsuggesting the possible abandonment of the project, schoolsupporters have been busy trying to assess the damage.

At a Southwest Mississippi Economic Symposium Friday morning,the school was a topic of discussion between sessions.

In a nutshell here is what happened and our opinion on what isgoing on.

First of all, the talk of abandoning the project appears to benothing more than that — talk. Senate Appropriation Chairman JackGordon who made the “abandonment” comment during Wednesday’s budgethearing has already backed off according to Rep. Jim Barnett.

In a phone conversation with the Brookhaven legislator, Gordontold Barnett he had no intention of killing the school but hebelieved a serious look at cost savings was necessary.

In a conversation with House Appropriation Chairman CharlieCapps on Thursday, he told me it was unlikely the legislature wouldabandon the school, but paring down the project might be necessary.He said he saw no opposition to the school, just opposition to thecost.

Lt. Governor Amy Tuck has also voiced support for the school.Governor Ronnie Musgrove told me at Friday’s symposium he too wasconcerned and continues his support for the project. Of course,Musgrove was a key player in the early strategy sessions to draftthe legislation to create the school.

Now what happened?

On Wednesday, the Department of Education went before the budgetcommittee and asked for $23 million to complete the whole project.Our guess is that the education folks’ strategy was they would askfor the moon and hope for the stars, since really only $6.5 millionis the immediate need to get the school open on schedule.

Our guess is that budget committee members, already frustratedover a $170 million revenue shortfall, knew what game was beingplayed and reacted angerly, sending the Department of Educationscurrying for cover.

The one issue that has surfaced out of all this funding chessgame is that the legislature is sending a strong message, a verystrong message, that they are not going to fund the whole projectand that school supporters are going to have to find privatefunding as they promised they would when the school legislation waspassed two year ago.

The budget committee’s shot over the bow of the fine arts schoolis a clear message of what they expect and what they want done.

A foundation has been established for the school and several keymeetings have been held in recent weeks asking for donations. Onelarge donation is expected to be announced shortly with an answeron a second hoped for in the near future.

The Mississippi School of the Arts is going to happen but thereare still hills to climb. We have a long way to go, but just thinkhow far we have come.