Shorter school year gets lawmaker note

Published 10:52 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2010

With threats to the Mississippi School of the Arts finallylessening late last week, local legislators are now free to gatherthemselves and refocus on several important issues afloat in theLegislature this session.

Obviously, the most pressing issue yet to be resolved in Jackson isthe fiscal year 2011 budget, and work on the spending plan shouldshift into high gear this week with the first legislative deadlinefor appropriations bills approaching on Feb. 24. But the budgetisn’t the only issue remaining that captivates Lincoln County’slawmakers.

“Everybody is a little bit riled up, or at least has an interestin, the school dates,” said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-BogueChitto. “I think we’ll see some things happen with cutting backschool days.”

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Moak said some ideas floating around the Legislature call for theschool year to be shortened by approximately 10 days, with K-12students beginning school around Labor Day and released for summerby Memorial Day.

The Mississippi Association of School Superintendents expressedsupport of a shorter school year before the session started, andMoak sees benefits in the adjustment as well. He said the extravacation days created by a shortened school year could be used forremediation for students having trouble passing the necessary testsand courses.

“What North Carolina does is bring those children back who have notpassed, study with them and give them an opportunity to takes thetest again,” Moak said. “That’s why North Carolina’s test gradeslook so progressive. Kids who need more one-on-one get to dothat.”

Moak said a shortened school year would also cut down on schooldistricts’ utility bills and allow Mississippi families more timeto travel together, which could bring more tourism dollars to thestate.

Another issue of great interest to Moak is the employment ofpreviously retired state employees, a group often referred to as”double dippers.”

He said there are 4,600 state employees who have retired, drawnbenefits and then come back to work at reduced time. The state isspending $53 million annually on that group.

“That’s over $100,000 a piece, man,” Moak said. “We see that goingon in a lot of areas, where people are just gaming thesystem.”

Moak said an amendment that would require such employees to sit outone year after retirement is a partial fix to the problem.

“You lose some of your juice during that time period. That’s noteverything, but that’s a beginning,” he said.

Being a new, vocal Republican in a Democrat-controlled House,District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, had to watch everysingle bill she authored for 2010 die in committee earlier thismonth. But several of the fixes Currie sought to pass into law arebeing carried on in other bills she’s keeping a close eye on.

Currie’s House Bill 330 would have prevented state employees wholive in provided housing from collecting a special retirementperk.

But now that change is being put forth in Senate Bill 2365, on itsway to the House after passing by a vote of 44-7 in the Senate.District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, wrote thebill.

“It’s going to be a big indicator to me whether (the Houseleadership) is really serious about trimming the fat out of thebudget. If it comes over the House and dies, the answer is thatthey’re not,” Currie said.

Another bill catching Currie’s eye is HB 1525, which seeks torevise the state’s mental commitment laws. The bill would prohibitmental patients from being housed in county jails while awaitingbeds to open up at mental institutions, a change she hopes willforce the state’s crisis intervention centers to take on that role.HB 1525 passed the House 119-1 and is now headed for theSenate.

“I want to see if we’re going to fix the crisis centers so they’llwork as they should,” Currie said. “Or are we going to continue togo down this road of putting our mentally ill in jail becausethey’re sick?”