- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - State education officials making their legally-mandated push to support Mississippi’s school funding formula were questioned Tuesday in a budget hearing about rising spending on administrators and whether lawmakers should spend more money on programs not included in the formula.

The Legislature would have to add an estimated $311.7 million to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in the 2016 budget year to provide what the formula calls an adequate amount of aid to school districts. That gap is up from $257 million this year, in part because officials will need to add more than $100 million next year to cover the second year of across-the-board teacher pay increases.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and others are asking whether local districts are spending money wisely. He cited figures showing some schools had cut instructional spending while increasing administrative spending.

Among all districts from 2008 to 2013, spending on instruction rose 0.5 percent, while spending on general administration rose 9 percent and school administration rose 6.9 percent.

“School districts around the state have chosen to spend less on instruction and more on administration,” said Reeves, a Republican. “Is there any way to justify those trends?”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he wants to find ways to channel more money to the classroom.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to curb the bad decisions and encourage the good decisions,” Gunn said after the hearing. That might require changes to the formula, he said.

State Superintendent Carey Wright said the only explanation she could give is that districts had cut the number of teachers to make ends meet.

Several lawmakers noted that they had appropriated more money outside the formula meant for classrooms.

“We’re doing our best with what we have to slice this pie, to make sure money goes to the classroom even if it’s outside the formula, for things we believe in,” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton. “The classroom component of the formula is not underfunded to the extent that people think it is.”

The State Department of Education asked for an additional $18 million for programs that aren’t formula-driven, including $5 million for a new computer system to track financial and student data, $1 million for additional test cheating investigations and a $6 million increase for prekindergarten funding. Reeves asked if Wright would prefer lawmakers fund any of those programs before filling the entire $311.7 million gap in the formula. Wright said she’d prefer lawmakers to fund the formula.

“I would never want to take money away from schools,” she said. “That is all they have to function on.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at https://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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