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Parents: Closing MSA would be terrible mistake

Parents of students at the Mississippi School of the Arts saythey will do “whatever it takes” to ensure their children cancontinue to attend the school – even it means paying some type oftuition at a public school.

The state Legislature, facing a budget and spending shortfall ofnearly $1 billion, is looking at whether to continue to fund MSAand the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus.MSA is requesting approximately $3 million and MSMS is requestingabout $4.6 million for next year’s budget.

Parents at MSA cannot understand how the Legislature couldestablish the school and then consider closing it only two yearslater. They pointed out how the school has demonstrated howsuccessful its programs can be.

“This state is just loaded with incredible talent. I think itwould be a shame if the Legislature promised to fund the school andthen backed out on it,” said Dean Payne, the father of TJ Payne, asenior computer animated graphics major at MSA who has won awardsfor her work.

Martin Hartzog, the father of junior visual arts major MollyHartzog, agreed.

“What chagrined me specifically was: Why start it and then stopit?, “said Hartzog, of Byram. “It should, at the very least, beallowed to continue the programs it has now. I would like for themto be able to expand the classes they offer and fully implement theexpanded program.”

Parents say they understand the state is strapped financiallyand looking to cut or trim anywhere they can. However, they don’tbelieve the state’s special schools are the place to do it.

“MSA and MSMS offer unique opportunities for the state’schildren. As a new school, MSA has not attained stable footing yetand desperately needs the financial support which the state haspromised,” said said Lorna Payne of Ocean Springs, the mother of TJPayne. “Legislators should not forgo education for financialreasons. Perhaps a better area to cut funding can be found with alittle effort and compromise.”

Hartzog said not funding MSA would be a mistake after spendingmillions to open the school only two years ago. With the state’sheritage in the arts, Hartzog said he was “vehemently” opposed toclosing the arts school.

“I know times are tough fiscally, but I just think it’ssomething that needs to be continued,” he said. “There’s been toomuch money invested in it. The talent they have down there is trulyunbelievable. It’s a special thing for the state. If they leave it,I really think in the future we’ll see some big dividends fromit.”

Hartzog added it was too early to reap the benefits the schoolwill eventually bestow. MSA’s first class will graduate later thisyear.

Laurel’s Daniel Darby, whose son Langston H. Darby is a seniormajoring in drama, said he would feel differently if the school wasnot living up to its expectations. Despite not being fully fundedlast year, he said it has actually exceeded expectations.

“It’s an exceptional school in all aspects. The kids love itand, as parents, we know they get a quality education there,” Darbysaid. “MSA is not a hobby or something unique to do for many ofthese kids. They are pursuing their careers. (The teachers) do whatthey have to do as a faculty to get the kids to open up and setgoals and aspirations for their lives. You can feel the feedbackfrom the kids. My son has always got good grades, but he excelsthere.”

The school also has a social benefit a person cannot buy, LornaPayne said.

“The kids who are into art tend to be in groups that are quiet(at other schools). Their social circle is not that large. But atMSA, all the kids have so much in common they just blossom. Theirpersonalities really emerge,” she said.

Darby, who taught social studies and coached for 15 years, saidthe pressure of budget shortfalls every year has a telling effecton the faculty, staff and school.

“It puts a lot of pressure on them. It makes them nervous. Youdon’t know if you’ll have a school next year. That’s not fair tothem. That’s why the students have worked so hard to excel – toprove they’re getting a quality education,” Darby said.

The Paynes, Hartzogs and Darbys all said that as a public schoolMSA should be free so that all of the state’s gifted students canafford to attend. However, if some type of a tuition or residentialhousing fee was the cost of keeping the school open, they wouldsomehow pay it.

“I will do whatever I have to do to let her complete her tenurethere,” Hartzog said. “I’m not going to take something like thatfrom her, and it’s hard for me to fathom that some members of theLegislature would elect to do that to these kids.”

Darby agreed.

Langston Darby also attended the school his junior year, butDaniel Darby admitted he is disabled and it may not have beenpossible for his son to attend had there been a tuition or fee. Hecould not, however, have denied his son his senior year.

“I would have to do that for my son if it happened that way,” hesaid. “I’m sure for a large percentage of parents, myself included,it would be a hardship. I would do what I had to, though, to ensurehe could still attend.”

Hartzog voiced a similar commitment.

“Some parents can afford to do that, but others cannot. I wouldrather see it continue to be a free education for the giftedstudents, especially for the those who could not otherwise attend,”Hartzog said. “If the only two options are to close the school orstart charging fees, then I guess I’m for charging the fees. But Iwould hate to see that for the kids whose parents can’t afford it -now and in the future.”

Lorna Payne, who admitted it would not be an extreme hardship topay a fee for their daughter to attend MSA, said it would be ashame to deny MSA’s opportunities to someone because they were froma poor family.

“Considering the diverse areas of the state that the MSA/MSMSstudents come from, to expect them to participate financially intheir education could be a costly error on the state’s part,” shesaid. “Should the state require students to pay tuition, many willnot even apply because they do not have the means to fund a highschool education and then possibly a college education.”

Even partial funding such as room and board would limit manyfamilies from this opportunity, Payne said. If a family is facedwith spending hard-earned and saved money on a high schooleducation or a college education, she said it seems the obviouschoice would be to send their children to the local high school atno expense.

“Specialized education of art, math or science should not beabout who can or cannot afford it,” she said.

Payne remained hopeful that MSA’s reputation would improve ifmore students get the opportunity to attend.

“I think it can only get better,” she added. “The more kids whograduate from the school will spread their experiences there andthe more popular the school will become.”