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Three Brookhaven facilities threatened in Barbour plan

The Mississippi School of the Arts faces what is likely itsstrongest threat ever after Gov. Haley Barbour suggested it formerger Monday in his executive budget recommendations, and twoother state facilities in Brookhaven are under fire as well.

In addition to merging MSA with the Mississippi School forMathematics and Science in Columbus, the governor also proposedclosing the Mississippi Adolescent Center and Brookhaven CrisisCenter, two mental health facilities located on Brookman DriveExtension. If all three institutions were closed or moved out ofBrookhaven, the city would lose 255 jobs.

Barbour is suggesting the three facilities and their combined$9.1 million budgets be closed or combined in an effort to coverpart of the state’s expected $715 million budget gap for fiscalyear 2011. Merging MSA with MSMS in Columbus, under the care of theMississippi University for Women, has often been suggested anddefeated in the Legislature, with the most recent attempt comingearlier this year in House Bill 1555.

In his budget recommendations, the governor suggests thatmerging the schools at MUW will save $1 million, but the cost ofthe move could outweigh any immediate financial benefits.

Uprooting MSA from Brookhaven would also leave behind aneconomic vacuum in Southwest Mississippi, said MSA Director SuzanneHirsch.

Citing a recent economic impact study conducted by theInstitutions for Higher Learner, Hirsch said the arts schoolcreates or sustains an estimated 135 jobs annually and contributesaround $6 million to Brookhaven’s economy by way of constructionprojects, contracts and spending.

“The school makes a significant economic impact to thiscommunity and the state,” she said.

Moving MSA out of Brookhaven would cause economic damage toSouthwest Mississippi, an area Barbour has identified as being leftout of the state’s economic development focus, said MSA FoundationPresident Bill Sones.

“He says he wants to help Southwest Mississippi. I don’t seewhere there would be any savings achieved by moving this campus,and I certainly don’t see how 11th and 12th grade kids would bebetter off on a college campus than they would be in Brookhaven,”he said. “We would like to invite him down to look at the artsschool so he can make an educated decision about it.”

Moving MSA out of Brookhaven could also cause economic damage tothe state, which has invested approximately $20 million intaxpayers’ dollars to old Whitworth College campus. If MSA isuprooted, control of the property will be taken away from the Stateof Mississippi and given back to Brookhaven through a reverterclause included in the property deed.

“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 states.

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

Gov. Barbour’s budget recommendation suggests moving theMississippi School for the Blind and Deaf to the Whitworth campusif MSA is merged in Columbus. It is unclear whether such a schoolmeets the reverter clause’s requirements for “other similareducational purposes,” said Brookhaven Mayor Les Bumgarner.

“You have to determine, whatever is proposed, if it were similaror not,” he said. “If they make that decision they’ll have to makeanother decision – what kind of school are they going to put inthere?”

Another issue is that the Columbus campus isn’t ready for MSAand its 126 students.

“We would need additional dorm space, academic space, arts spaceand especially performing arts space from the university,” saidCharles Brown, executive director of MSMS. “If the powers that be,with this economy, choose to move the arts school here, we’ll doanything we can to ease that transition. It would certainly be anupsetting situation for everyone (at MSA), and there would be somereal challenges here.”

When the last MSA/MSMS merger was proposed in January, MUW VicePresident of Finance and Administration Nora Miller said existing,unused facilities at MUW where legislators wanted to move artsstudents would need extensive renovations.

The two vacant residence halls and empty classroom space, lastused as an elementary school, would require electrical work, theinstallation of high-speed lines for Internet access, theinstallation of new heating and air conditioning systems andremodeled bathrooms, which Miller said were “built forthird-graders.”

Additionally, Miller said new performance halls and studioswould likely be required for MSA students to move to Columbus. Shecould not estimate the cost of such repairs without knowledge ofMSA’s exact needs.

Eleven months later, the situation at MUW remains unchanged.

“We have not had any discussions about this,” Miller saidMonday. “Not from the governor’s office, not from K-12. We knew itwas being talked about, but there’s been no conversations withus.”

Yet another factor in merging MSA and MSMS is the possibleinterruption of each school’s breakout success.

Hirsch pointed out that MSA students recently garnered $3.2million in scholarship offers, generating more scholarship revenuethan the school’s entire budget, which has been trimmed to $2.9million.

Additionally, MSA’s open house last weekend saw 96 prospectivestudents visit the campus. She said open house numbers typicallyrepresent a fraction of the school’s applications the followingyear, and that 2011 enrollment could be record-breaking.

“This announcement could stop some people from applying, but wefully intend to be here next year,” Hirsch said.

Likewise, Brown said MSMS is thriving on its own as well.

“Our recruiting this year is going great,” he said. “Ourapplications are up four times from this time last year, and wehope to enroll the largest junior class ever this year, which willput us close to 300 students.”

In regards to MAC and the Brookhaven CIC, the MississippiDepartment of Mental Health released a statement saying it hasimmediately begun making plans in response to the governor’sproposal. MDMH plans to seek alternative funding sources for theBrookhaven Crisis Intervention Center and other CICs the governoris seeking to close.

The state board of mental health drafted a closure plan for MACearlier this summer.