Local arts school needs our support

Published 12:12 am Saturday, December 16, 2017

Take a step back, if you will, to the mid 1980s. The local economy was skipping along at a brisk pace but downtown Brookhaven was a bit shop-worn and tired. The buildings on the campus of Whitworth College were home to multitudes of cats and other varmints as well as a few vagrants — the buildings were considered eyesores to many. There were serious discussions of razing them and replacing the campus with a parking lot. McComb had a McDonald’s downtown and the idea was we could have one, too. Imagine the Golden Arches sitting where Lampton Auditorium sits today.

Fast-forward to the present. Brookhaven’s downtown is bustling with freshly-renovated buildings becoming a showplace for other communities to emulate. The historic Whitworth Campus now holds the Mississippi School of the Arts. The cats, varmints and vagrants have been evicted, replaced with a bustling student population whose hometowns touch every county in Mississippi.

None of this happened by accident. You see, in 1999 the whole community — city and county, black and white, public and private, rich and poor — came together latching onto a vision of a statewide school for the arts on the historic campus. In three short months we sold the idea to the Mississippi Legislature as well as a skeptical governor. As they say, the rest is history — albeit at times a rocky one.

One can make a pretty good argument that had it not been for MSA, downtown Brookhaven would look very different than it does now. Investment seeds more investment as investors look for opportunity — the Mississippi School of the Arts being a huge seed.

Which brings us back to MSA and its rocky times. Statewide budget cuts have hit the art school hard in recent years and especially after the latest cut in September. The projected 2019 legislative budget released recently only makes the situation worse. Since 2009 the school has seen a 15.5 percent decrease in its operating budget. Despite those cuts, MSA has not only survived, it has grown. The student population is at it highest level in the school’s history, while teaching and administrative staff is at its smallest level. Two buildings have been added to the campus and two additional programs of study added as well. State-mandated but unfunded teacher pay raises have also cut into the operating budget. Today, the school operates on $476,113 fewer per year than it did in 2009. The MSA administrative staff has done more with less and should be named the governor’s poster child for being efficient with taxpayer dollars.

How tough is it at the school? Well, MSA is starting to run out of things — the basics. Such as what, one might ask? Well, to put it gently, if you are visiting the school it would be helpful if you went to the restroom elsewhere before arriving on campus. The plumbing works fine and the water is plentiful — they are a little short on paper.

They too need copy paper; several businesses in town have come through donating extra cases. It was thought the toilet paper crisis had been averted a few weeks back but the twenty-five cases donated by a local company was diverted due to a sizing issue — industrial size rolls were not usable in the dorm rooms.

Got any extra pens and pencils? They could use those too, as well as sticky pads, highlighters, legal pads, file folders and mailing labels. You name it, they need it. There are several bigger items on the list but grants are needed for those — after all the school is 15 years old and items like computers have to be replaced and air conditioners do wear out.

Granted all of the schools in Brookhaven, Lincoln County and the surrounding area are having budget issues and needs. The difference, however, is that MSA does not have the PTA framework that our local area schools enjoy, nor do they have the local tax base. Nope, they do not receive any city or county tax dollars. Being a statewide school, MSA just does not have the natural parent support nor because it is so young, the mature alumni base yet, that older schools can count on for monetary and moral support.

For our area, the Mississippi School of the Arts is a local industry, with a tremendous economic impact for the area providing jobs, producing a superior product and promoting not only our community but Mississippi — and nationwide. The economic impact of MSA is huge for the state. Last year’s senior class earned over $10 million in scholarship offers — 3.9 times the school’s annual operating budget.

So, just like in 1999 the community’s help is again needed — be it monetary donations, increased community support, prayers or even an extra roll of toilet paper.

Bill Jacobs is the former owner of The Daily Leader.