MSA students arrive on campus

Published 5:00 am Monday, August 4, 2008

Mississippi School of the Arts students moved in to the StudentLife Center Sunday, but a discrepancy over a new room and board feesent school officials scrambling to find funds to help somecommuter students cover the unexpected costs.

MSA Director Dr. Vicki Lambert said the MSA Foundation and theBrookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce spent the weekendseeking sponsorships for students who were in danger of beingdenied enrollment for failing to meet a stipulation of the new,state-mandated room and board fee signed into law earlier thisyear.

While the requirements for students living on-campus have beenknown, Lambert said the school did not discover that commuterswould also have to pay the first installment upon enrollment untillate Thursday afternoon. On-campus students must pay $1,000 for theyear while commuters have to pay $500, Lambert said.

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Lambert said the commuter-related requirement went unnoticedbecause the language regarding commuters was removed from the draftstate board policy. The removal went unnoticed because theMississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus, whichhas been in existence far longer than MSA, has no commutingstudents.

“If a child didn’t have a hardship waiver and couldn’t pay room andboard, we would have to send them home,” she said. “Otherwise, wewould be in violation of state law and state board of educationrequirements.”

Lambert said the foundation and chamber immediately developed loansto pay the first installment and began creating up to 40scholarships for the few students who were in danger of beingturned away. The scholarships will cover those students’ first $250enrollment fee, while the loans must be paid back.

Lambert said MSA had to use few of the 40 scholarships, as mostincoming students were prepared to pay. No student was turnedaway.

“We’re going to do whatever is necessary to serve our children,”she said. “We’re not going to let Mississippi’s most gifted artistsbe denied because of a law written at the last minute.”

Lambert is not the only one displeased with the new feerequirements.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said Donna Morelock of Corinth, whosedaughter enrolled at MSA Sunday. “When they first opened the schoolthey said it would be free, and it’s not right to suddenly make[students] pay for something they’ve worked hard to achieve.”

Morelock said she had applied for the Children’s Health InsurancePlan for her daughter. Students who participate in the program arenot required to pay the room and board fees.

But Morelock does not know if her daughter will be accepted, andshe said enrolling in the program is not a cure-all for the feeincreases.

“They should take it out altogether,” she said. “I don’t know wherethey will [get the funding], but they had it before. This couldknock a lot of kids out of being able to come to MSA.”

Vivian Napier, of Florence, has a suggestion for the Legislature ofwhere MSA funding can be found.

“We spend $40,000 a year per prisoner in this state, and we can’tpay for our education?” she complained. “They should cut back moneyspent on prisoners and alternative education and fund our giftedstudents.”

Napier, who enrolled two children in MSA Sunday, said she and herfamily have had to cut back on expenses.

“We’re not happy at all,” she said. “But it’s worth it to send ourkids here.”

Jackson’s Blair Bingham, who enrolled his daughter for her firstyear at MSA Sunday, was unphased.

“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s just part of it – you deal withit.”

Disgust with the room and board fee increases among parents was notenough to keep MSA from recording what Lambert said was possiblyits biggest enrollment since the school opened. She said the schoolwas close to its capacity of 170 students.

“Enrollment has grown every year since we’ve been open, and wecan’t grow any more until we get more housing and instructionalspace,” Lambert said.

MSA requested funding for the construction of a new dormitory thisyear, but Gov. Haley Barbour and the Legislature approved very fewbond bills for the year. She estimated a new dorm would costbetween $8 and $12 million.

Lambert said the only way for the school to expand without a newdorm is to house four students per room in the existing dorm,”which is bedlam,” she said.

“But we may have to go that way to keep from turning childrenaway,” she said.

Lambert said MSA has already converted some spaces into classrooms,and the visual arts department is so large it requires two separateclasses. The only space available for new classrooms, she said, isin Lampton Auditorium, which is scheduled to close soon forconstruction that will make it handicap accessible.

Lambert said the school’s limited space is a good sign.

“It’s a great problem to have,” she said. “More children areseeking our services, and we’ll have more children to serve. Itshows parents are willing to pay something to have their child cometo a special school.”