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House rejects arts school move bill

JACKSON – A bill calling for the Mississippi School of the Artsto move out of Brookhaven was defeated in the state House ofRepresentatives Friday morning by a vote of 43 for and 73against.

House Bill 1555, which called for MSA to move to Columbus to thecampus of the Mississippi University for Women and join the similarMississippi School for Mathematics and Science, was debated on theHouse floor for almost one hour before finally being struck down.The bill’s death brought immediate relief from Brookhaven andLincoln County leaders, who have spent hours on the phone and onthe road, traveling back and forth to Jackson this week to lobbysupport for MSA.

“The chamber is very pleased that this bill was defeated in theHouse, and we have our House members and senator to thank,” saidBrookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Executive VicePresident Cliff Brumfield. “I think the facts spoke forthemselves.”

Brumfield said city, county and chamber leaders would continueto fight for the future of MSA, even though it appears 2009’sshort, sharp battle in the Legislature has ended.

“We need to work on a long-term plan with the MississippiDepartment of Education to secure the school’s future so thismatter does not come up again,” he said, pointing out thatcriticism of MSA has threatened the school several times in thepast.

MSA Director Dr. Vicki Lambert said she is “cautiouslyoptimistic” – happy to see HB 1555 defeated, but worried thatsimilar language could be inserted into another bill via amendment.She remembered that last year’s legislative requirement to make MSAand MSMS students pay $500 per semester for room and board was analmost unnoticed amendment to another bill.

The school’s support mechanisms are already in action, shesaid.

“As we speak, we have a group of parents and students at theCapitol to talk to their legislators,” Lambert said Friday. “Andwe’re growing our own support. Some these young, bright people arevoters now.”

Lambert said the MSA Foundation, parent groups and alumni wouldcontinue to seek support for the school and guard against anyfuture attempts to close or move MSA from Brookhaven.

“We won’t be caught out in left field,” she said.

During Friday morning’s debate, District 87 Rep. JohnnyStringer, D-Montrose, chairman of the House AppropriationsCommittee and co-author of HB 1555, said MSA should be moved toColumbus in order to cut down on costs, join it and MSMS for anexpanded gifted curriculum and avoid another “$40 million” ininvestments he said were necessary for the Brookhaven campus.

Stringer said housing and instructional space at MUW wasavailable and could be used immediately at low cost.

“How can you justify 120 students? They can move today,”Stringer said of MSA. “We won’t have to spend anything except toput sheets on the beds. We’re not closing, we’re improving.”

District 66 Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, chairman of the HouseEducation Committee and HB 1555’s co-author, said combining the twoschools would improve them both from an educational and financialstandpoint.

“If we were to go out today and try to open a high school with120 students, people would say we’re crazy,” he said.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, was the firstlegislator to take the stand and speak against HB 1555 Fridaymorning. District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, alsoquestioned the proposed move and consequences should it have comeabout.

But the two Lincoln County legislators also found otherlawmakers standing by them. District 98 Rep. David Myers, D-McComb,spoke against the bill, as did Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville,and Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune.

“It tells me that we have children from all over the state thatgo to school there,” Currie said following the vote this morning.”The House showed the kids that we support them. This was for thechildren – that’s all it had to do with. Now they can go back toschool, get their minds back on school and not have to worry aboutthis.”

During the debate, Currie may have turned many legislatorsagainst the HB 1555 by reminding them that MSA students come fromall over the state.

“These are not my constituents, these are all of yours,” shetold the House.

Perhaps the most memorable of defenses for MSA was that ofMyers, who defended not only Brookhaven and the arts school, butalso all of Southwest Mississippi.

“We have something in our area we can be proud of,” he said. “Wedon’t have much down there, and this school, we’re proud of. Lookat cutting some money somewhere else and let us keep our littlebeacon of hope, our beacon of light, in Southwest Mississippi.”

Former Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett, who authored the bill creating MSAin 1999, was also relieved that one of his legislativeaccomplishments was spared.

“I’m very excited, because that bill should have failed,” hesaid. “We have no need to move this school. It’s to the advantageof the State of Mississippi to leave it in Brookhaven, and it willbe left here.”