MSA supporters mounting defense

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When area legislators gathered Monday to take stock of theMississippi School of the Arts, the devil stood beside District 91Rep. Bob Evans.

The Monticello Democrat poured on tough questions, assumingsupport for Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge the school withthe Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus and doinghis best to poke holes in local officials’ defense.

Of course, he was faking it, but it was exactly what everyoneneeded to hear.

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“I’m just playing devil’s advocate. I guess it’s the lawyer inme,” Evans said. “These are questions that we’re going to hear inthe Legislature.”

Every fact was checked and every angle considered during thelate afternoon tour of the campus that saw a handful of SouthwestMississippi legislators and local MSA supporters begin thefoundation of a defense for MSA, which will face its greatestthreat ever when the Legislature convenes in January. The lastattempt to move the school out of Brookhaven was defeated in theHouse earlier this year, but the new threat has the governor’ssupport and may be much graver.

But MSA and its supporters are building a case based on commonsense and the availability of cents. Although the governor claimedmoving MSA to Columbus would save around $1 million, a deeper studyof the proposal reveals the savings just aren’t there, supporterscontend.

With the proposed MSMS merger site on the campus of theMississippi University for Women unprepared to receive MSA’s 130students, construction and renovation that would likely cost in themillions would be necessary to provide living, residential andperformance spaces for arts students. Savings realized in theclosure of the Brookhaven campus would likely be swallowedimmediately in construction projects, and $25 million in taxpayerinvestments at MSA would be lost to the city of Brookhaven via areverter clause in the property deed.

Regardless of construction and property issues, MSA DirectorSuzanne Hirsch said moving arts students to Columbus would requirea $2.1 million budget increase for MSMS. The current MSA budget isonly slightly higher at $2.8 million.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. There’s a lot of wisdom inthose old sayings,” Evans said. “If you can show me there will besubstantial savings, it might make the argument at least viable,but the word is substantial. You’re talking about saving $500,000to $700,000 in a $6 billion budget. What is that, one-hundredth of1 percent?”

Money isn’t the only issue. District 99 Rep. Bill Pigott wasimpressed by the quality of MSA’s instructors and students, sayingthe school is providing a niche for students not found in othersectors of public education.

“This is a totally different environment you would have toreconstruct in another part of the state,” said Pigott, ofTylertown. “We’re going to look at the numbers on the whole thing.I’m looking at it a whole lot closer now.”

Pigott briefly discussed the possibility of moving MSMS toBrookhaven instead of MSA to Columbus, an aggressive option somelocal arts school supporters have touted throughout MSA’s manytrials in the Legislature. Pigott alluded to what local supportershave shouted all along, that Brookhaven is a smaller, safercommunity more conducive to high school students that Columbus,with its alcohol sales and college environment.

“There is a plus here to the environment in Brookhaven,” Pigottsaid.

Moving MSA out of Brookhaven would also cause a serious economicloss to Southwest Mississippi, supporters say. The school’seconomic impact on the area has been estimated at between $6 and $7million, with more than 65 jobs sustained.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Golden Trianglearea in Columbus has seen far more economic development thanSouthwest Mississippi.

“We have not gotten the jobs like the Gold Triangle and otherparts of Mississippi, but we’ve done the work. We’re in the secondstage, and we don’t want to send a mixed signal by losing MSA,”said Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Executive VicePresident Cliff Brumfield.

MSA supporters plan to further develop their defense as Januaryapproaches.

The school plans to invite more legislators to tour the campusand see the arts in action first-hand. It worked for District 96Rep. Angela Cockerham, who got her first look inside the school’sclassrooms, dance floors and performance halls Monday.

“It’s beautiful. I wish something like this had been around whenI was in school,” the Magnolia lawmaker said. “We definitely needto keep this in Southwest Mississippi – it’s a jewel. We’ll fightfor it the way we always fight for it.”