Progress: Education add-ons add to their budgets, too

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 27, 2009

State Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, and Sen. Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport, both got the old eyebrow-raise from the professional education community last week. Both lawmakers are members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. They were listening to the Department of Education request for an extra $173 million next fiscal year, which, by the way, is expected to be leaner than the year that began July 1.

Peranich, who chairs the House Tourism Committee, said starting school in early mid-August (or the beginning of August, as was done by the Vicksburg Warren School District this year) puts a crimp in family vacations and the tourism tax dollars the state needs.

Hewes, who, like Peranich, hails from a tourism-rich region, added that air conditioning costs could also be saved by going back in time to the days when classes started after Labor Day. No, he wasn’t talking about fewer school days. “The economics of air conditioning a building in August versus September or even May versus June should be a lot cheaper,” Hewes said.

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It’s food for thought. None of us “grown-ups” in Mississippi walked 10 miles to school in the snow, uphill in both directions — but costs associated with education have certainly blossomed beyond “our day.”

• Almost all students are transported to and from school, even if the building is a few blocks away.

• Schools offer two meals, at a minimum, each day. In Mississippi, most are offered at little to no cost.

• The price of textbooks, many of which are replaced every year, is over the top.

• And central heat and air conditioning systems do cause meters at school districts to spin like gyroscopes.

Nobody here is arguing for a return to the olden days where school boys chopped wood or shoveled coal to fire furnaces. The point is merely that students today have many advantages that did not exist in the past. Few of them came cheap or can be continued inexpensively.

Earlier this year, the Legislature allocated a record $2.5 billion to K-12 education, an amount since reduced by $114 million because the state’s income is not keeping pace with projections. For perspective, the entire state budget didn’t top $2 billion until the Class of 1994 graduated. Somehow, education did take place in the “olden days” of, say, 20 years ago. No one wants to go back, but if it came to that it wouldn’t be a disaster.

Education should be “fully” funded. But defining “fully” is the Legislature’s job. Whether the education establishment likes it or not, it’s OK for legislators to ask questions.