MAEP increase goes to teacher raise

Published 9:00 am Sunday, May 31, 2015

As school winds down, local districts are taking the necessary steps to get ready for the next school year. One of the biggest challenges is preparing the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

With an increase in state funding, some may be wondering where the extra money is headed. Brookhaven School District Superintendent Ben Cox said the city schools received an additional $470,049 through Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding over the year before.

Cox said $340,000 of that will cover the state-mandated teacher pay raises. The remaining $130,000 will go to comparable pay raises to some hourly employees and school administrators.

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Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said the whole idea of an increase in education funding is more or less smoke and mirrors. While the dollar amount may be the highest ever allocated by the state, Moak believes it’s not enough. Moak estimates that $54 million will go toward funding the increases across the state.

“If the state of Mississippi would do its part and fund education, we would see change,” Moak said.

Cox estimated that about 80 percent of the district’s expenses goes toward personnel costs, including salaries and benefits. Currently, he said state funding provides about 50 percent of the district’s revenue. Local taxes provide 30 percent of the district’s revenue, and the remaining 20 percent is from federal funds. Cox also said federal funds are restricted funds and must be used for specific projects. Cox said he believes those percentages are normal for most districts.

Cox said according to the MAEP formula, BSD is currently underfunded $1,173,844. From fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2014, BSD has been underfunded more than $7.1 million.

Cox said if they were to be fully funded next year, his emphasis would be to ensure the school’s infrastructure is improved. He said that some schools need roofs and cooling systems replaced and lights need to be updated.

If they were able to make those improvements, the district would in the future be able to save money by spending less on repairs. He said initially, he would be hesitant to add positions because they would need to know that money would be available each year. After he felt the income was reliable he would look to add positions.

“We would want to make sure formula funding is stable to sustain teachers for more than one year,” he said.

Cox said ideally the district would like to add more positions, particularly in lower grades.

“We would focus on K through fourth to begin with,” he said. “That’s where students get their basics.”

Cox said the ideal average student-teacher ratio would be 20 to 22 students per teacher. He said it would vary depending on grades and subject. Right now the average floats around 26 to 27 students per teacher. Cox did say that averages can be deceiving, particularly when accounting for advanced placement classes that may have five to 10 students. Cox said other teachers may have classes of more than 30 students.

Moak said his main concern with lower education funding is that the burden falls to local taxpayers. He said that in Lincoln County, underfunding comes out to about $100 per person. He said if the state doesn’t fund education, then the revenue must come from local taxpayers.

Moak said fully funding education doesn’t have to cause a headache for state budget writers. Currently, Moak estimates the state has about $750,000,000 in reserve funding.

“We don’t fund the things we ask the people to pay taxes for,” he said.

Moak said the funding issue could be addressed if there was a shift in how the budget was created. He said he believes that the three things that should always be funded include public protection (law enforcement, firefighters, first responders), education and healthcare.

“If you prioritize those things, everything else can fight for money,” he said.

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, said that while MAEP was not fully funded, the problem is more complicated than simply throwing more money at it. Some of the additional education funding went into line item funds for designated purposes. She said if all of the additional funding were lumped into MAEP, the state would have been close to fully-funding MAEP.

Doty said while she believes the schools in her district (including Brookhaven School District, Lincoln County School District and Lawrence County School District) do a good job at managing their money, not all districts do. When money is designated to a particular purpose, the state can ensure state funds are being used properly.

Doty also said the recession from 2008 to 2010 caused problems for the state budget, and they are just now recovering from that.

“The question is how fast do you want to do it,” she said.

Doty said state legislators are continuing to work towards eventually fully funding MAEP, but she also said efforts are being made to improve the state of education through other ways, namely by improving teacher quality. She said the teacher pay raise is part of that, and the state provides scholarships for those pursuing education degrees in exchange for service in the state.

“We want our best and brightest teaching our students,” she said.

Currently, Doty said education is the largest budget category in the state. Education spending, including grade schools, community colleges and four-year colleges, totals $2.5 billion. The next closest category is healthcare at $1.4 million.

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said the problem may go back to the formula itself. She thinks the state should look at re-evaluating it because it has many complicated factors. She said the fact that it has only been fully funded twice since its creation is evidence of the difficulty of the requirement fulfilling MAEP.

Currie said there has been a shift into ensuring state funds are going directly into the classrooms, whether through increased salaries, school supplies or books.

“You have to fix the classroom,” she said.

Currie serves on the PEER committee. She said the committee did a study that looked at 15 school districts and compared the amount of money spent per student to high performing schools. She said there proved to be no discernible pattern. Some schools with some of the lowest spending performed better than other schools with much higher spending.

“Money is not the end all fix all,” she said. “Of course, it would be nice.”

Currie said she would also like to see teachers be relieved of some of their duties, so that they can focus more on their main job – teaching. A move to improve early education would also benefit those students with less involved parents.

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Brister was not available for comment. Preliminary numbers suggest that a large portion of the increase in funding it will receive will also go toward the teacher salary increases. LCSD has been underfunded $7.8 million from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2014.

BSD will hold a public hearing on the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget June 16 at 6 p.m. LCSD will hold a public hearing on its budget June 15 at 5 p.m.