Denton and Ford not in favor of House Bill 957 that would change formula

Published 6:58 pm Thursday, January 18, 2018

Public school funding in Mississippi may be changing, and leaders in Warren County are unanimously opposed to the changes.

The Mississippi House of Representative passed House Bill 957 by a 66-54 vote Wednesday. The bill, if passed by the Senate, would replace the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has only been fully funded twice in 20 years, with a new formula.

Oscar Denton, the Democrat representative for District 55, joined 45 other Democrats in voting against the bill. Kevin Ford, the Republican representative for District 54, was one of only nine Republicans to vote against the bill. Vicksburg Warren School District superintendent Chad Shealy also opposes the bill

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“In the weeks leading up to this, I have spoke with our District superintendents, school administrators, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and many constituents about the details of HB957,” Ford said. “I had to vote no on HB957.”

Specifically, Ford said he chose to vote against the bill, which was sponsored by Gunn, after seeing the proposed negative impact it would have on the Vicksburg Warren School District.

“The financial hit to Vicksburg Warren School District was too great,” Ford said. “When I found out the speaker was going to bring the bill up really early in the session I started working with Chad (Shealy) and the speaker’s office to go over the numbers. We got Chad in to see the speaker before it came out and we just kept working on the numbers and it didn’t line up for Vicksburg. When it didn’t line up for Vicksburg Warren School District, I couldn’t vote for it.”

Although he was one of only nine members of his party to vote against the bill, Ford said the decision was “easy.”

“I was elected to represent District 54 and that is what I’m going to do,” he said.

Denton said he voted against the bill due to what he saw as the negative impact of the new formula and also because he didn’t agree with the legislative processes leading up to the vote.

“The number one reason was that in my opinion it wasn’t going to do anything to help schools as far as monetary,” Denton said. “Secondly, it was a rushed-through bill that we hadn’t properly vetted. We had no hearings on it. I didn’t see where it is going to help us any.”

Prior to the vote, the Democrats proposed numerous amendments, but the Republican majority House rejected all of them.

“We debated that bill for over four hours and if you look at the record I think we the Democrats proposed somewhere between 18 and 19 amendments that would have really helped the bill, but not one amendment was accepted,” Denton said. “We weren’t just trying to do amendments to do them. They were really well thought out amendments that would help the bill.”

Shealy commended Denton and Ford for their votes against the bill and called the new formula “frightening.”

“I am very proud of both Oscar Denton and (Kevin) Ford,” Shealy said. “Both of those guys voted no to it. They understand that it is not a positive move for Vicksburg and I am not certain it is a positive move for education across the state.”

HB957 sets a base-funding amount of $4,800 per student with no special needs. Districts would then receive additional money for special education, gifted and high school students and students learning English. Districts that are deemed extremely rural would also receive extra money.

Shealy, who met with Gunn prior to the vote, said his main concerns are the lack add-ons for transportation or career technical education and the change in the formula used to calculate poverty in a district.

“I felt it was unfair that they were using census data to represent our poverty rate versus our free and reduced lunch numbers,” Shealy said. “Namely because overnight by magic now we have a 50 percent decrease in poverty in Warren County. It is not just the children we serve. It is everybody that lives in the county.

“We have a ton of students gaining dual credit enrollment and CTE certifications and now we are going to get a base cost that is less and there is no funding we could find that is an add-on for transportation at all and none for CTE. Those two are big tickets for us. Our second largest cost is transportation.”

Shealy added that if the change is made from MAEP to the new formula, it removes the requirement for the legislator to provide any funding at all to school districts.

The Associated Press estimated that 24 districts, including VWSD, would lose money initially while 118 would gain money.

The AP reports that the bill would increase funding $107 million over the current levels following a rollout period of seven years, but would still fall $157 million short of the legally mandated amount for next year under MAEP.

Denton said some of the Democrat’s chief concerns were that the bill also has no formula to account for inflation or an outlined funding mechanism.

“Now, the legislature can decide every year what amount it wants to spend on public education without regard to what it actually costs to educate our children,” House Minority Leader David Baria, a Bay St. Louis Democrat told the AP. “This is a sad day for public school advocates.”

HB957 now moves to the state senate, where it is expected to undergo changes. If the senate approves a different bill it would return to the house.

Briggs Hopson, District 23 state senator, said he has not seen the bill and likely would not have a chance to read it until the senate has finished passing its own bills currently on the table.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.