School data raises MSA-MSMS merger doubts

Published 8:05 pm Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A handful of female arts students might have to be dismissedfrom school if the Legislature moves the Mississippi School of theArts to Columbus as a cost-savings measure.

According to an analysis of current numbers, eight female artsstudents would have to be turned away at the start of their senioryear due to housing limitations if MSA were moved adjacent to theMississippi School for Mathematics and Science at the campus of theMississippi University for Women. That number could shrink, but allsigns point to it growing as both schools seek large recruitingclasses for 2010.

“I don’t know if the state wants to get in the business ofselecting what students would come back and which ones wouldn’t,”said MSA Director Suzanne Hirsch.

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If MSA were moved to MSMS, arts students would have to share thatschool’s male and female dorms, which house 180 studentseach.

MSMS Executive Director Charles Brown said his current enrollmentof 238 was 60 percent female, or 142 girls. That leaves 38 openbeds in the MSMS girls’ dorm, into which 46 female arts students ofthe current junior class would have to fit.

MSA supporters have questioned the dismissal of students based ongender as an open door to discrimination suits against the state.Hirsch said the school’s admission policy allows for dismissal foronly three circumstances – low performance in academics, lowperformance in the arts or discipline issues.

“If I have all my kids in good standing, there will be an issue,”she said. “I can’t just say arbitrarily, ‘You go home.'”

Avoiding the housing problem would require either the renovation ofoffices or other spaces into rooms or building a new dorm.Renovating or building new spaces would defeat the money-savingpurpose of House Bill 599, House Education Committee Chairman CecilBrown’s bill for moving MSA to Columbus.

Gender discrimination issues notwithstanding, other financial factsabout combining the two schools make the merger effort seemmisguided. Data provided by the Mississippi Department of Educationshows potential problems with the merger.

According to a study MDE data, $2.2 million would be needed toprovide arts classes at MSMS, and the cost to educate one artsstudent would rise from $18,187 to $20,161. MUW would collect a 1.5percent annual administrative fee of $33,450.

Additionally, many MSA teachers would not be able to move toColumbus with the school, requiring their replacement.

On top of the replacements, an estimated 10 additional teacherswould be needed to accommodate the merger. A rearranging ofschedules between all three institutions would be necessary toshare the limited arts and performance spaces, which will notaccommodate all of MSA’s disciplines.

Due to a shortage of comprehensive arts programs at MSMS, artsstudents would have to participate in college-level courses at MUWunder a dual enrollment plan. Specific criteria is necessary fordual enrollment, however, and some arts students may notqualify.

Moving MSA to Columbus would result in Southwest Mississippi losingthe economic impact of 135 sustained jobs in the area and a $6million contribution to the region’s economy.

The state would also walk away from more than $25 million ininvestments made to the campus over the last seven years, with theproperty reverting to the City of Brookhaven. While the state wouldbe breaking its commitment to the city, the city would still haveto pay the remaining $2.1 million on a $3 million bond it agreed tofor the arts school’s creation.

If HB 599 were signed into law and effective July 1, preciouslittle time would be left for MSA, MSMS and MUW officials toorganize the three schools in one location. And just as with lastyear’s attempt at merger, no preparation has been ordered by MDE orthe Legislature at the schools.

“There’s really nothing for us to plan at this point,” said Brown,head of MSMS. “We’ve been down this road before … until there isa decision, at this point it’s wasted effort. At the moment, thisis more of a distraction than anything.”

Nora Miller, vice president of finance and administration at MUW,said no officials have told her institution to prepare for thecoming of MSA either. She said MUW officials are focused onfighting their own battles – the college has also been targeted formerger, with nearby Mississippi State University – and not thepossibility of housing MSA.

If the merger were approved, Miller said MUW could accommodate artsstudents without any new construction, though some renovations maybe necessary. She did not elaborate, but based on the inadequatespaces at MUW suggested for MSA use in the past, the renovationscould be extensive.

Miller agreed that funding large construction or renovationprojects would defeat the purpose of merging schools to save thestate money.

“We make that same comment about merging us,” she said. “I don’tknow what numbers they’re showing for cost savings.”