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Senator, representative work together to get money for School of the Arts

Two Brookhaven lawmakers are trying to slide a little financial help to the arts school in the legislative session’s last hour by attaching maintenance funds to the statewide bond bill.

District 39 Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, and District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, worked together to amend House Bill 1650 to add $1.5 million in building and renovation funds for the Mississippi School of the Arts, which has done without in recent years under flagging state revenue and is currently under intense budget pressure due to cuts. The amendment was inserted by the Senate Finance Committee, of which Doty is a member.

“The arts school has proven itself to be an asset to our state, and we want to support it,” she said. “They operate on such a thin budget from year to year, they really have not had any money to do repairs.”

The House declined to accept the Senate’s amendments to HB 1650 on Wednesday, and the bill will now head to a conference committee for work on final details. Doty said she and Currie were hoping to avoid a conference committee.

“The problem is once you go to conference, a lot of things are being negotiated. We wanted it to pass clean,” she said. “But I think it will survive conference. It has several items that no one will have any controversy about. I’m very hopeful, but you never know.”

Currie said arts school administrators haven’t asked for a dime — she and Doty talked to school officials late last year to feel out a good number for a “what if” funding situation.

“Let’s be honest — this is putting it on the state’s credit card, but there are some things you have to keep up, things we just have to do,” she said. “The school’s budget is already cut down to the dollar, and no one can run on a budget that close.”

If the bill does pass, MSA would have $1.5 million for infrastructure repair and renovation projects, of which the school has plenty.

MSA Executive Director Suzanne Hirsch said the school’s facilities are in need of paint and plaster work, floor replacement, HVAC repairs, upgrades to the security system, lighting upgrades and other projects.

“We’re 15 years old. Things are starting to break,” she said.

One of the larger projects the school has in mind is the relocation of the first-floor security hut in the administration building. Hirsch said plans call for the non-functioning revolving door to be removed and the security hut rebuilt in its place, so that officers on duty will have a better view and be able to respond more quickly if someone attempts to enter the school uninvited.

If the bond bill passes and MSA gets the cash, it would be limited to upgrades and repairs to the physical plant — the school would not be allowed to use the money for program expansion or supplies.

That’s another problem entirely. MSA is currently operating on a roughly $2.3 million budget after sustaining a $125,000 budget cut earlier this year when the Mississippi Department of Education doled out reductions to absorb a 22 percent cut to its budget. The school has bit its expenses down to the quick, resulting in this school year’s awkward calls to the Brookhaven community for help procuring toilet paper and paper towels.

“We have no wiggle room,” Hirsch said. “This year we’ve had to eliminate our art supplies budget — we’re still doing amazing things, but it is very, very tight. Anything our students need, they’ve had to fundraise to buy.”

Hirsch said she is very thankful for the $1.5 million boost — assuming it comes through the legislative conference committee — and she hopes for the restoration of the school’s pre-cut budget.

“If we can get the $125,000 back, we’ll be able to make it work for the next few years,” she said.

Doty’s Senate Bill 2609 is also still alive in the legislative process. The bill would require MDE to provide central business services for MSA and the Mississippi schools for the blind and deaf.

Unlike other schools, which operate under districts, MSA is a direct offshoot of MDE and is expected to operate like a state agency. The school’s small staff and limited budget make it hard to meet those requirements, and SB 2609 is intended to free up some of those expectations — and dollars.

Doty said the bill calls for existing MDE employees to take over those responsibilities, and the plan has gotten some pushback from the agency. She hopes the legislation will provide some relief this year, and she plans to try again next session — depending on whether or not she leaves the state Senate for the U.S. House.

If Doty’s gone, Currie will almost certainly continue the fight.

“If Ray Carlock (superintendent of Brookhaven schools) wants a minimum wage employee, or wants to order some toilet paper, he doesn’t have to go through what Suzanne has to go through,” Currie explained. “If she wants someone to cook biscuits, she has to go through a four-month rigmarole. The structure just doesn’t work well for them.”