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Arts education hangs in the balance at Capitol

Thursday afternoon, the beautiful chorus of a talented group ofMississippi teenagers rang through the House chamber at the stateCapitol.

As the soft melodies of a well-trained team of students echoedthrough the domed chamber, House members were unusually quiet asthey listened to the members of the Mississippi School of the Artschoir. They responded with two standing ovations.

A day earlier, House members approved an education bill thatfunds much of the 2005 education budget. Under the House bill, thefull 8 percent teacher pay raise is funded, as is most of theMississippi Adequate Education Program.

While these are positive steps, the overall education request isunderfunded by $24.9 million and leaves the Mississippi School ofthe Arts with a budget of a mere $817,000 – almost half the currentyear’s budget and actually less than the school received the yearprior to opening, when a bare-bones staff was organizing theschool.

The budget crunch is real, and the future of theBrookhaven-based school could be in question as lawmakers look forways to balance the budget. From the response of legislators duringthe annual Brookhaven Day at the Capitol, one would think theschool is a top priority. Unfortunately, it is not.

What a vastly different situation in 1999, when the idea of theschool was the darling of the Legislature and had overwhelmingsupport. But, of course, the state was flush with money then, andtimes were different.

Today, with money short and legislators getting bombarded withfunding requests from special interests that have largerfollowings, the young arts school – with a limited base ofstatewide student and parental support – gets pushed to theside.

Educators from across the state who once promoted the school’sconcept are now trying to save their own budgets and have otherconcerns. Supportive legislators who saw the vision of the schoolare more concerned with funding in their own districts.

A major fear from the earliest days of the school was that manywould view MSA as a Brookhaven institution or regional school withlittle impact on the rest of the state. Nothing could be furtherfrom the truth, as the school’s enrollment is statewide.

To drive home that point, MSA foundation board member LukeLampton of Magnolia reminded House members during the Thursdayluncheon that he was not from Brookhaven nor Lincoln County but wasan individual interested in the promotion of arts education in thestate. He reminded legislators that the school is not just aBrookhaven institution but a statewide one with students from allcorners of the state.

Unfortunately, until the school can build a statewide network ofalumni and friends, the current struggle will be ongoing.

The House education bill now moves to the Senate, where one hasto wonder how the more fiscally conservative Senate will react.Fortunately, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck is a strong supporter of the artsschool but she too has a full plate of priorities.

The real test for the school will be when the education billmoves to the conference committee stage, for that will be where thereal education budget will be set and the future of a $35 milliondollar educational investment will be determined

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on the future of artseducation in Mississippi.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551,

Brookhaven MS 39602, or send e-mail to

bjacobs@dailyleader.com.