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Arts school in jeopardy

The Mississippi School of the Arts is under attack in a newpiece of legislation that seeks to close the Brookhaven campus andmove it to Columbus, but local officials say the bill is flawed andare preparing to fight it.

House Bill 1555 calls for the arts school’s relocation to thecampus of the Mississippi University for Women to share space withthe Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, the state’sother residential school for talented high school juniors andseniors.

District 66 Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, and District 87 Rep.Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, who serve as chairman of the HouseEducation and Appropriations committees, respectively, introducedthe bill last week. It is currently awaiting action in theAppropriations Committee, where it expected to be reviewed byTuesday, Feb. 3.

Neither Brown nor Stringer returned calls seeking commentTuesday.

MSA Director Vicki Lambert said HB 1555 contains faultylanguage, adding that implementing such a move before the nextschool year would be difficult.

Lambert also disputed per student costs cited by lawmakersregarding the two schools. Stringer has been quoted saying thestate spends approximately $30,000 per student at MSA, compared toaround $18,000 per student at the school at MSMS.

However, Lambert said figures from the Mississippi Department ofEducation show that MSA operates at $20,698 per student, while MSMSrequires $22,312 per student.

Lambert also said the mission of each school is totallydifferent, questioning the logistics of the proposedcombination.

“We are self-sufficient,” she said, pointing out that MSMS’operations are governed by MUW administration.

Furthermore, Lambert mentioned the unity between MSA and theBrookhaven community, citing the millions of dollars invested andthe results. Seniors from MSA, which operates on $3 million annualbudget, have tallied approximately $2 million in collegescholarship offers during each of the last two years.

“That’s a pretty darn good investment,” she said. “Our studentsare completely and totally ready for college.”

Another flaw in HB 1555 is its stipulation that real andpersonal property at MSA’s Brookhaven campus be divvied up betweenthe Department of Finance and Administration and the Department ofEducation for redistribution or use at the Columbus campus.

Prior to MSA opening in Brookhaven for the 2004 school year,city leaders ensured it would remain in operation by including areverter clause in the property deed to the state.

“In the event that such buildings, lands, or other propertiestransferred are not used for the purposes intended, to-wit: theFine Arts School, School for the Performing Arts, or such othersimilar educational purposes, to be operated by the State ofMississippi, then the lands, buildings and other improvements shallrevert to the City of Brookhaven,” the deed reads.

A city resolution passed in accordance with the school’screation contains the same right of reverter.

Although merger proponents contend the aim is to save money bycombining the two schools, MSA Foundation Chairman Bill Sones saidthe move would be costly.

“I don’t really see how it could save money because a lot ofmoney has been spent in preparation down here,” he said. “The statehas tens of millions of dollars invested in property down here, andour city put up $5 million on the front end and renovated LamptonAuditorium at a great expense.”

Lambert also cited strong local support.

“The city administration, the chamber and the community at largehave embraced this school and made it a part of the community,”Lambert said.

Sones said MSA often comes under attack in the Legislature, butthis is the first time legislation has been introduced. He said heunderstands what the bill is trying to accomplish in a time ofshort budgets and financial hardship, but he thinks Brown andStringer have it backward.

“A much better move would be to move the math and science schoolto Brookhaven and take those high school juniors and seniors off acollege campus,” Sones said. “The safety of a small townenvironment is probably a much better place to put these youngstudents.”

Former Rep. Jim Barnett, agreed with Sones. Barnett led the wayfor MSA’s creation in 1999 with House Bill 706, which he saidpassed “overwhelming” on a vote of 111-8.

“When we first got the idea for the school, I talked to thedirector of MSMS and he said, ‘I want to give you one piece ofadvice – do not put your school of the arts on a college campus,'”he recalled. “‘You can’t imagine the troubles we have here being ona campus with older students.’ I’ve always remembered that.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said abandoning theBrookhaven campus would waste taxpayers’ money, not save it.

“Why would they spend all this money over the years and then notsupport [MSA]?” she said. “I don’t know how much the total isthey’ve spent there on renovations and dormitories, but it’s ahefty price tag. Good for them to say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake.’Hindsight being 20/20, that’s just not good enough.”

Currie pointed out that MSA’s students consistently make thecase for leaving their school alone with their awards, honors andmillions of dollars in scholarships.