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Unknown law could have prevented loss of funds — 2017 flu cost schools, but should not have

An obscure policy in the state’s education funding formula could have stopped local schools from losing $1 million next year, but apparently only a handful of people knew it existed.

The Mississippi Department of Education has a rule on its books allowing school districts to request the substitution of more favorable enrollment numbers when the department is calculating annual school funding allotments if school attendance has suffered due to outbreaks of sickness or natural disasters. Superintendents statewide could have sent a letter to MDE by Dec. 1, requesting protection from last year’s abnormally strong flu outbreak, but no one from the schools — or from MDE — knew that was an option.

“Nobody had ever heard of it. I was stunned,” said Brookhaven School District Superintendent Ray Carlock. “I said, ‘Why in the world didn’t y’all put that out?’ I didn’t think it was a secret we were having pockets of flu problems across the state.”

Brookhaven schools are projecting a loss of $534,000 in MAEP funding for fiscal year 2019 after last year’s flu outbreak lowered the district’s average daily attendance by 5 percent, meaning Ole Brook schools operated down 146 students daily during September and October when attendance figures for the funding formula were gathered.

Similarly, flu absences took the Lincoln County School District’s average daily attendance down around 4 percent, or 141 students per day, resulting in a calculated shortfall of $484,000 next year. Both districts are considering how best to cut budgets to absorb the losses.

Carlock or Lincoln County Superintendent Mickey Myers could have headed off the funding crisis by writing MDE and asking for help under Rule 48.7, “Determination of ‘inordinately large number of absentees.’” The law allows MDE planners to consider recent historical attendance and enrollment data to determine if current attendance losses are “inordinately large.”

But Rule 48.7, which went into effect in 2009, was a mystery to both Carlock and Myers until Monday, when administrators from both school districts met together with local lawmakers and MDE officials for a conference at the Brookhaven central office. Local attendees say the discussion was polite and informative, but they’re also irritated a chance to avert big funding losses was lost to what seems to be missing information and poor communication.

“The high rate of absenteeism should have been a red flag for MDE for certain, and I haven’t talked to another superintendent yet who knows anything about requesting a waiver,” Myers said. “There has to be an open line of communication between MDE, the Legislature and local school districts, for sure.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, who helped organize Monday’s parley, said MDE should have given notice to school districts statewide that relief was possible through Rule 48.7.

“If you have 400 employees, it seems to me you would be able to get the message to people. Why didn’t a red flag go up at MDE when numbers came in low all across the state?” she said. “At what point do you recognize there’s a flu epidemic when it’s on the front page of every newspaper? It just seems like MDE left them out in the cold.”

Pete Smith, chief of communications and government relations with MDE, defended his agency’s failure to push Rule 48.7 in front of superintendents, saying no one knew about the rule because, to his knowledge, no district has ever requested relief under its provisions. He also said MDE funding coordinators would not have noticed changes in average daily attendance because of the nature of their work.

“We look at things in the aggregate, so it’s not unusual when (the department) is calculating MAEP for the state that some districts’ average daily attendance would fluctuate 100 or 200 kids,” Smith said. “Unless we are made known of an incident or an issue, then we wouldn’t look for something to be out of the ordinary. We don’t know if the (flu) outbreak had an effect on each district.”

Smith pointed out the final determination for granting average daily attendance exemptions under Rule 48.7 lies with the state board of education, saying there is no guarantee the board would have approved a district’s request for relief if they had known about and followed the rule.

It’s too late to change anything now. Gov. Phil Bryant signed the MDE appropriation bill into law on April 12, and Brookhaven, Lincoln County and other flu-ravaged school districts will have to live with their losses next year.

One thing is for sure — Rule 48.7 is no longer a secret.

“I’ll tell you this — I will know that from now on. I’ll be doing that calculation for myself, and if there’s a 3 percent variance, I will be requesting that waiver,” Carlock said. “(Cutbacks) are what we don’t want when accountability is at its most critical. We have the toughest accountability in the nation, in a state that spends less per student than any other. We kind of shoot ourselves in the foot putting ourselves in this situation.”