- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:


August 22

The Hattiesburg American on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

This week, the Hattiesburg American, like many media organizations in Mississippi and Louisiana, will be focusing on Hurricane Katrina on its 10th anniversary this week.

FEMA described Katrina as “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history,” and set the damage total at an estimated $108 billion, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Our stories are filled with memories of those who lived through the storm that ravaged the Coast and roared through the state on Aug. 29, 2005, but they also are tales of recovery, courage and hope. And hopefully made us stronger and better prepared to handle the next catastrophic event, should one occur.

Hurricane Katrina killed 238 people in Mississippi and 1,577 in New Orleans, directly or indirectly, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

The scars of Katrina are barely visible in the Pine Belt. An empty lot here and there where homes or businesses had been barely serve as reminders of the powerful storm.

We learned many lessons from Katrina:

.Don’t ignore weather warnings. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

.Be prepared. Have at least three days of food, water, medicine and other supplies. A week’s worth would be even better.

.Have a plan. Have assigned tasks, so everyone knows what they should be doing. Choose a gathering spot where you and your family members can meet if you are not together or get separated when disaster strikes. Designate a relative or friend from out of town who can help reconnect you in case other means of contact are not available.

.Stay calm. Katrina brought out the best - and the worst - in us. Fights erupted over food, water and other supplies. A Hattiesburg man shot his sister to death during an argument over ice. Losing a life just isn’t worth it.

“We take so much for granted. Disaster is a great equalizer,” said Kathleen Koch, a former CNN reporter and University of Southern Mississippi graduate, adding the lack of the basics - food, water, electricity, telephones - reduced survivors to Third World status.

And former Petal alderman James Moore said he learned from Katrina that society as a whole is fragile, and the monumental event showed us just how fragile we are.




August 22

The Clarion Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi on state contractor procedures

After years of questionable state contracts and an embarrassing bribery scandal involving the former head of the state Department of Corrections, the Mississippi Legislature took steps to roll out reforms for the board charged with monitoring agencies’ contracting procedures.

A revamped Personal Services Contract Review Board began meeting after July 1, this time with citizen members appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor instead of being solely composed of other agency heads as before.

The board’s goal: monitor contracts submitted by state agencies to make sure the bidding process is handled properly, transparently and efficiently. Clamping down on no-bid contracts was a must.

The whole process is one designed to better monitor millions of state funds going through agencies to contractors, a way to serve the best interests of Mississippians.

Except all three steps stumbled right out of the gate.

The initial bill that passed the state House was not what the Senate approved.

Instead, the Senate scooped out chunks of the proposed legislation, leaving behind a clause that introduced a potential loophole in the law, creating a possible exemption for a state agency if “utilization of a competitive bid procurement would have been counterproductive to the business of the agency,”

Inadvertent or not, the Senate may have given state agencies a pass on real reform. And without an honest try for transparency, taxpayers are robbed of their right to know why their money is going to certain vendors.

The previous PSCRB’s actions also came back to haunt the new board in its recent meeting.

Beacuse of the former board’s reluctance to approve MDOC contracts for inmate food and medical services, an “emergency” was created, leaving MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher to request two no-bid contracts totaling $60 million to provide the services.

And while Fisher is correct in saying both contracts were needed to avoid violating the constitutional rights of state prisoners, it’s disconcerting the very agency that, under different direction, was responsible for abusing contract laws did not appear to be on top of the problem before such an emergency was created.

However, kudos to Fisher for promising to bid out the necessary services and for making sure the no-bid contracts can be canceled once new - and properly vetted - ones are inked.

Meanwhile, the new PSCRB has met twice since forming on July 1. Yet two seats remain empty because the citizen appointees to be named by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have not been announced - nearly two full months after the law went into effect.

The other two appointees - Bill Moran and Rita Wray - were named by Gov. Phil Bryant, and both seem to carry the burden of their position seriously. In the most recent meeting, neither was afraid to question agencies, and even though all requests were eventually approved, it’s a positive move forward. The governor chose his appointees wisely, if their first two meetings are any indicator of how they will serve on the board.

Reeves is likely to also appoint two other qualified board members, though it would be nice to already have the full board seated.

The best interest of Mississippians should be closely guarded, and Reeves’ slow response is not encouraging, especially when considering the millions of dollars in contracts that already have gone through that board.

As for the PSCRB in its present form - two citizens and the directors of the State Personnel Board and Department of Finance and Administration - there’s still a learning curve.

The directives issued by the board saying it wanted to see state government use competitive bidding or requests for proposals whenever possible and get the best deal for taxpayers is exactly why the legislation was needed.

But questions sometimes need more answers than immediately are available. In the same way it’s not good to make an agency wait on contract requests until an emergency situation is created, it’s also prudent to, at times, allow agencies to go back and supply more information before millions of taxpayers’ dollars are signed away.

The board is a step in the right direction, but only if political influences allow PSCRB members to do their jobs and not cause them to lose sight of the ultimate victims of shady, improper contracts: Mississippians.

The Legislature and Bryant should revisit continued contract reforms in the next legislative session. The job is not over yet.




August 21

The Greenwood Commonwealth on evaluating public schools

Mississippi’s legislative watchdog group makes a lot of valid criticisms of the way in which the state Department of Education rates the state’s school districts and individual schools.

One of the problems with accountability models - no matter which state is using them - is the tendency to manipulate the system so that the results follow the “Goldilocks principle” - neither too bad, nor too good, but just right. If the public were given the true picture of how little students in many schools were actually learning, it would not only be discouraging but would put a lot more pressure on school officials, both state and local, than already exists.

So, as the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee noted in its report released Thursday, the state Department of Education has come up with ways to make the schools - and itself - look better. It sets arbitrary “cut scores” after the results are in, which assures a certain number of students fall in the higher proficiency categories, regardless of how well they do by objective measurements. It has watered down graduation requirements to increase the graduation percentages, even though many of those now getting diplomas don’t have the skills necessary to succeed in higher education or in the workplace. And it gives more weight to how much students improve over the previous year than to the actual scores they get on state tests. That is, if a poor student fails but fails less badly than the previous year, that’s worth more credit in the accountability model than a decent student passing the test by about the same score two years’ running.

That extra emphasis on growth was designed to level the playing field between impoverished communities, where schools have to deal with kids from poor and undereducated households, and betteroff communities, where mom and dad may have college degrees and wellpaying jobs.

In theory, that might be justifiable. If you are going to use test scores to evaluate teachers and administrators, it’s unfair to ignore the differences in the raw material with which they have to work. Nevertheless, when so much weight is put on improvement rather than achievement, it provides a misleading picture to students, schools and communities - and breeds complacency with what is objectively a substandard performance.

PEER has recommended that the Department of Education give the schools and districts two grades: one based on actual scores, and one based on growth. That makes sense. Ultimately, how students do after high school will depend on actual knowledge and skills, not whether they get the award for “most improved.” But it’s also valuable to know whether schools are doing better or worse than would be expected, based on their pool of students and their home backgrounds.



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