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Bill filed to relocate arts school

New attempts by the Legislature to move the Mississippi Schoolof the Arts out of Brookhaven have begun, but housing limitationsat the proposed new location in north Mississippi could lead togender discrimination issues.

The chairman of the House Education Committee, District 66 Rep.Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, has authored House Bill 599, a no-surprisesbill that would move MSA alongside the similar Mississippi Schoolfor Mathematics and Science at the Mississippi University for Womenin Columbus. The bill was referred to the Appropriations CommitteeTuesday.

This year marks the second consecutive year Brown has aimedlegislation at moving the school. Many officials – including Gov.Haley Barbour – agree that merging MSA’s $2.9 million budget willhelp the state plug a more than $700 million funding gap for fiscalyear 2011.

“This is not something that’s sort of a knee jerk reaction, it’ssomething that has been thought out,” Brown said Tuesday.

Since the merger possibility was raised last year in thegovernor’s budget recommendations, Brookhaven, local legislativeand community officials have mobilized in an attempt to keep theschool in Southwest Mississippi.

Now, a new move-related issue that is surfacing involvespotential limits on the number of bed that could be available formale and female MSA students on the MUW campus. MSA supportersexpressed concerns that bed limitations could preclude students ofone gender or the other from being able to attend MSA if it weremoved to the university campus in Columbus.

Brown maintained that moving MSA to the MUW campus and combiningthe teaching staffs would create better educational opportunitiesfor the students of both schools and spread operation costs over ahigher number of students. Another alternative – bringing MSMS toBrookhaven instead – would not be feasible because the campus can’taccommodate that school’s 240 students, he said.

Brown said facilities exist at the MUW campus to take on the 125arts students with minimal relocation costs. Campus officials therehave pointed to the contrary, however, saying that additionalfunding would be required to bring abandoned educational andresidential spaces up to speed, as well as to build the performancespaces arts students would require.

Brown said he doesn’t remember extensive work being needed atMUW, but added he wouldn’t argue that fact.

“I’ve not set foot on MSA or MSMS,” he said. “Everything I’mtelling you is what I’ve been told.”

Brown said finding an alternative use for the MSA property andfacilities is ongoing, though a reverter clause in the propertydeed that brings the grounds under the city of Brookhaven’s controlcould be a limiting factor. He said he was aware of the clause butdoes not think finding an alternative state use for the propertywill be a problem.

The state has invested more than $25 million in the MSA campussince it opened. Including the value of property, the city ofBrookhaven has also invested millions in the form of dollars andproperty to have the arts school here.

Plenty of problems exist with moving MSA to Columbus, but moreproblems could arise if the move is actually undertaken. MSADirector Suzanne Hirsch said Columbus campus does not have thespace to take on the two schools’ combined student bodies, aproblem that could lead to admission limitations based ongender.

“You’re basically telling us we would have to limit admissionsbased on gender, which is huge,” she said. “There’s a specificnumber of beds for female dorms and the boys dorm, and there’s notgoing to be growth unless there’s money to renovate a dorm.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said genderdiscrimination at a combined MSA/MSMS would be unacceptable.

“The first lawsuit the state incurs because they’ve done this onthe basis of gender is going to wipe out any savings in one fatalblow,” she said.

Currie said she is working to gather Republican and regionalsupport for MSA in the House, though those efforts may be difficultthis year considering the governor’s approval of Brown’s bill.

Currie said she is suspicious of efforts to find a replacementinstitution for the Brookhaven campus, suspicious of the savingsthe bill’s supporters cite and suspicious of moving MSA to MUW – acampus that has its own problems and was also targeted for mergerby the governor.

“Are we being used as a pawn to save the W?” Currie said. “If125 high school students is what they believe is going to save theW, they need to shut it down tomorrow. Placing 125 high schoolstudents on a college campus is a disastrous thing to do.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said regionalsupport for MSA may outweigh what appears thus far to be bipartisansupport for moving the school.

He’s expecting a multitude of bills based on the governor’sproposals. And with all the other issues the state is facing, MSAlegislation may be moved to the backburner.

“You’d have to look at how hard (Barbour) pushes this issue,”Moak said. “If he pushes it hard, he’ll pick up the Republicanvotes. There are some Democrats that are going to go alongalso.

“This is one of those issues that you’ll have to work with everyindividual,” he continued. “There will come a time when people arewilling to listen, and timing is everything.”