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Petition drive seeks full school funds

Parents and educators, striving to increase attention on thestate education budget, are beginning a petition drive to fullyfund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP,today.

The “Step Up For Children” Petition Relay begins today in threelocations in the state. Efforts involving Brookhaven residents arescheduled for Sunday.

Volunteers are walking to Jackson with the signatures ofcommunity members in support of fully funding MAEP.

“This is a statewide effort to let our legislators know thepeople of Mississippi believe in living up to the promises thatthey’ve made,” said Brookhaven School District Superintendent LeaBarrett.

MAEP was passed into law several years ago. However, Barrettsaid it has never been fully funded, which she says leaves thestate at risk of a lawsuit.

MAEP is a funding plan that concentrates on making sure everystudent has a qualified teacher and that every community in thestate has the resources to provide quality education programs. Howmuch money the program requires is computed annually based on aformula established by state lawmakers and educators.

“Student enrollment is growing in many communities statewide,but this year we will have 900 fewer teachers and other educationemployees in the classroom,” Barrett said. “Many local communitieshave been forced to raise taxes to pay for state-mandated educationprograms.”

When the legislature approved MAEP, it took the state a boldstep forward in designating education as a priority, Barrett said.However, the state has never been able to live up to itsintentions.

“Mississippi was ahead of the game, but because they do notfully fund it, we are at risk of being sued to fulfill thatcommitment,” she said.

Barrett cited a case in Arkansas where the state was mandated bythe court to fully fund its adequate education program afterfailing to do so.

Designed to bring attention to state funding that falls short ofthat demanded by MAEP, petitions are being walked up Highway 49from the Gulf Coast and south from Indianola and Oxford to link upJan. 11 at the state Capitol in Jackson.

Local efforts in the drive include taking petitions on Sundayfrom Brookhaven to Mendenhall, where area parents and educatorswill link up with others traveling north along Highway 49.

Brookhaven representatives will then substitute for walkers fromLawrence, Simpson and Copiah counties to walk a three- or four-milestretch of the highway. They will pass the petitions on to parentsand educators from Rankin County to finish the route.

“If you have not been contacted, but you are interested inwalking the petitions along Highway 49, contact Lucy Shell at833-1332,” Barrett said.

Shell, president of the parent-teacher association at MamieMartin Elementary School, is organizing Lincoln County’s efforts inthe drive.

“When they asked me, I was so honored that I accepted withouteven knowing the details,” Shell said. “I care about our schoolsand I’m committed to helping them in any way I can.”

Others can help by signing the petitions, she said. Petitionscan be signed at the office of any school in the city or countyuntil Friday morning.

Another way to help, Shell said, is to show support for theprogram by wearing red from Jan. 3-11. Red was chosen as thepetition drive’s support color because educators say fully fundingMAEP will “keep our schools out of the red.”

Funding shortfalls last year left Lincoln County schools$388,693 and Brookhaven schools $398,938 short of projections.

“There’s only so much you can absorb before it begins to affectthe quality of the education you can provide,” Barrett said. “We’renot asking for more money; we’re just asking them to live up towhat they promised they would do.”

Others participating in the local petition drive include KarenBraden, Bill Sones, Mark Lewis, Dorothy Henderson and the Rev.Larry Jointer.

According to information compiled by the Mississippi Associationof Superintendents and Coalition for Children, Mississippi’s statebudget increased from $2 billion in 1993 to $3.5 billion in 2003,an increase of 75 percent. However, education funding forkindergarten to 12th grade increased by 65 percent, while otherstate services increased by 83 percent.

“Now they want to cut us again to fund other services,” Barrettsaid.

The same organizations provide statistics that show that 450percent more funding went to house prisoners than to educate thestate’s children.

“If you can’t educate them, you’re certainly going to have tofund the prisons. Because that’s where they will end up if theycan’t get a job to provide for themselves or their families,”Barrett said.