- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

July 13

The Greenwood (Mississippi) Commonwealth on adults being main education problem:

It’s easy to blame kids for education problems, to say they’re unmotivated or unwilling to learn. But last week’s news from Tunica County, where the school district faces its second state takeover in 17 years, is a good example of how adults are the bigger problem.

Gov. Phil Bryant has approved plans for the Mississippi Department of Education to take over the Tunica County system. The superintendent had already resigned, and Margie Pulley, the former Greenwood superintendent, has been appointed to manage the district while it is under state control.

As conservator, Pulley will report to officials in Jackson, as state law requires the removal of all school board members in a takeover.

Tunica County’s problems are big ones. A Mississippi Department of Education investigation revealed the school district was violating 22 of 31 state accreditation standards. It said the district had become a “lawless fiefdom,” to the point that the superintendent never reported to authorities an alleged rape at a high school in 2014. Special education students, who may have the most individual needs of all, were instead lumped into similar education plans that were not updated annually as required.

In short, the superintendent, who was elected at age 26, and the school board were in over their heads. This is no surprise when you consider how much money and responsibility is involved in public education.

It has become typical for rural school districts to have annual budgets of $15 million or more. In Tunica County, flush with property taxes from several casinos, the budget was in the $27 million range for just 2,200 students.

That’s $12,200 per student - about $3,300, or a third more than the state average - and still Tunica County officials couldn’t come close to getting it right. How can any school district have that much money to spend and be unable to meet twothirds of accreditation standards?

Tunica County is now one of four school districts under state supervision. When it is released from that, state law mandates a good first step: an appointed superintendent rather than an elected one.

Being a school superintendent is a tough job. They must be wizards of education, of financial management, of employee management and of public relations. That’s a tall order.

What should happen after the new Tunica County school board hires someone for that job? The inescapable conclusion is that schools must have a stronger supporting cast of adults - principals, special education directors, food managers, transportation director and probably many others. Based on reports of incessant school board infighting in Tunica County, voters need to take their duty more seriously, too.

Tunica County apparently has the money to hire quality managers and teachers. The question is whether it instead is wasting a lot of payroll dollars by being a job provider for family and friends.

This often tends to be the case with districts that perform poorly.

Education is a challenge. So many things have to be done properly for it to work well. The process, though, starts with competent administrators, teachers and staff

Online:

http://www.gwcommonwealth.com

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July 14

Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, on Singing River Health System retirees

It is understandable that Singing River Health System administration, the SRHS Board of Trustees and the Board of Supervisors want the retirees and community to accept the 88 percent pension being offered and to move on — and, in their words, “be positive.”

Considering, with the exception of a couple of administrators, the current group was in charge and responsible for what happened, we, too, would want to move on.

But hold on.

As we suspected for some time, and finally was admitted to in court, the investments made with the pension money were poor.

Think back when John McKay said the investments were good earning 8 percent to 9 percent a year.

Then Billy Guice reported that moving forward, the investment should be conservative.

Now we have an admission in court that the investments were poor.

Retirees have the right to know who was responsible for running their pension plan into the ground and to hold those that made the decisions accountable.

Then they may have an interest in moving on.

Online:

http://www.sunherald.com

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July 12

The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi, on the funding the Adequate Education Program:

House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, called state agency heads to the Capitol last week and gave them a simple assignment: Come up with a proposal to cover 7.8 percent budget reduction next year either through spending cuts or fee increases.

Frierson says that how much money the state will need to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program if a proposed constitutional amendment passes in November.

Proponents of the amendment, known as Initiative 42, called the meeting a political move by Frierson, accusing him of trying to scare agency heads and state employees into opposing the proposal that will appear on the November ballot.

Indeed, Frierson’s meeting was political theater, and it was a brilliant piece of politics at that. Frierson has a long history of supporting increased funding for public schools, so it’s hard to see that his opposition to Initiative 42 is because of any dastardly plan to rob schools of money. Instead, Frierson does not believe funding choices should be written into the constitution because he sees it as being fiscally irresponsible. That’s not an easy point with which to argue. The idea of having constitutionally mandated spending seems quite risky.

Nevertheless, proponents of Initiative 42 have skewered Frierson for holding the meeting, saying he is using fear as a political tool. He denies such, but anyone with half a political mind can’t take his denials seriously. If you are the chairman of Appropriations - arguably the most powerful chairmanship in the Legislature - and you are against a constitutional ballot initiative that you believe could do fiscal harm to the state, why wouldn’t you use every tool at your disposal to defeat it?

Consider if the roles were reversed. Suppose that same Appropriations chairman supported Initiative 42 and called a meeting of agency heads to reassure them that if the constitutional amendment passed their budgets would not be threatened. What would proponents of Initiative 42 say to their opponents who cried foul, accusing the chairman of luring agency heads into a false sense of security in order to win support for the vote? I bet proponents would then accuse their opponents of using fear to scare voters into voting against the initiative.

Simply put: People in a political fight use whatever tools they have at their disposal to win. Frierson did just that last week. He sent a not-so-subtle message to agency heads and, therefore, state employees that if Initiative 42 passes, their budgets will be cut, which could cost jobs and services.

To be fair, Initiative 42 does allow for full funding to be phased in over multiple years. In that instance, a 7.8 percent cut would not be necessary. However, as Frierson pointed out, the ultimate decision would be left to a judge. For his part, Frierson said he would argue for full funding immediately because that would be the ultimate will of the people. Such a move seems fiscally irresponsible, given that a phase in would be allowed.

Still, while this was clearly political theater, it doesn’t mean it was only political theater. Frierson would be an absolute fool not to prepare for a worst-case scenario, especially one that could plausibly come to fruition by this next session.

His calling for agency heads to prepare an emergency budget solution in case of a 7.8 percent cut is him being a responsible chairman. The alternative would be disastrous: to sit idly by and risk a reality in which voters approve the amendment and a judge orders full funding of MAEP starting with the 2016 fiscal year. Frierson and his fellow legislative leaders would then scramble halfway through a legislative session to come up with a workable budget plan. Their political opponents would label them feckless, and such an assertion would be accurate.

The fight over Initiative 42 is a high-stakes political war. Both sides are playing hardball, as they should. But we can do without the hysterics.

The question voters will have to answer in November is whether the state constitution should mandate full funding of MAEP. And while we support full funding of public schools, we still aren’t convinced that a constitutional amendment is the way to do it. We are sure, however, that Frierson and the House will be ready to make funding work if it passes, and we appreciate that.

Online:

http://www.clarionledger.com

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