Column

Secret contracts let politicians keep taxpayers in the dark

Parents fight for transparency, better schools in struggling Mississippi

Photo of Liz Willen

From the Editor's Desk

The golden eagle atop the Mississippi capitol building’s dome purposefully faces south, away from Washington, D.C. – a symbol of the state’s fierce independence.

JACKSON, Miss – Imagine living in a state with some of the lowest performing schools in the country. You’ve stood up at meeting after meeting, complaining about constant teacher turnover, outdated textbooks, broken toilets and functionless water fountains.

You voted in favor of an amendment to change part of the state’s constitution so that your state legislature would have to fully fund the public school system – and then watched it fail.

A year later, as schools continue to languish, the state’s legislature enters into a secret $250,000 agreement to revamp its school funding formula with a New Jersey-based nonprofit known as EdBuild. And then refuses to release the details.

In other words, your elected officials won’t tell you how they are spending your tax dollars to fix ailing schools. Compounding the secrecy, they vote on a new policy to make all their contracts confidential.

Little wonder that dozens of parents in Mississippi, which lags behind the rest of the country on a range of education measures, showed up at the at the Beaux Arts state capitol building in Jackson last week to express their outrage and frustration.

Related: Mississippi state senator calls tinkering with public school formula terrifying

On my way into the hearing, I walked past an embattled state flag that incorporates the Confederate battle symbol. I glanced at the golden eagle atop the capitol building’s dome that purposefully faces south, away from Washington, D.C. – a symbol of the state’s fierce independence.

Under President-elect Donald J. Trump, though, the red state may be increasingly in sync with what will soon become a GOP-controlled government, along with a new president who ducks and disdains the press whenever possible.

In Mississippi, the vote to make all contracts confidential followed a simple public records request from the news outlet Mississippi Today, asking to see EdBuild’s contract to reevaluate the formula that determines the state’s share of public school funding each year. (It’s known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.)

The state apparently is paying just half the cost of the EdBuild contract; undisclosed private donors are paying the rest.

Inside the packed hearing, the crowd was urged to control any show of emotions. They displayed plenty anyway. Melissa Johnson, a retired educator, said she’d driven halfway across the state from the Gulf Coast city of Ocean Springs to push for more resources in schools.

“There is a lot of money at stake, but far more important than money are the schoolchildren that deserve the very best we can get for them,’’ Johnson said.

Related: Mississippi has a school funding fight on its hands: Will kids be the winner?

In several classrooms at Richton Elementary School in Mississippi, students still sit in desks that date back to the 1970’s.

Camille Lesseig of Jackson, a former teacher, spoke of the many unfilled needs in state classrooms, at one point turning to EdBuild’s CEO Rebecca Sibilia and saying that without spending time in schools, “you can’t know what’s like to have over 150 students trying to share 28 books in a school that doesn’t have a copy machine.”

Sibilia did not speak during the hearing, but afterwards told a reporter that she understands the concerns of speakers. She said she remains focused on “moving forward to do what they [the state] asked us to do, which is review MAEP, talk with stakeholders and make recommendations.”

Meanwhile, questions remain about the legality of the legislature’s new “privacy’’ policy, which states that any House member may “read and/or review” a contract, but “contents of the contract shall remain confidential and the House member shall not copy, duplicate or photograph the contract in any manner.”

The legislature’s House Management Committee members justified the secrecy vote by insisting state law gives them the “right to determine the rules of its own proceedings and to regulate public access to its records.”

Is that legal?  Views differ. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant told reporters last week that he does believe taxpayers should be able to see the contracts they are paying for. But he also maintained that it’s “the Legislature’s decision to make.”

And late Monday, Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood told state legislative leaders that their actions were not legal and contracts could not be secret, and they agreed to post the contract with EdBuild.

Related: Heartbroken Mississippi educators wonder what’s next after funding failure at polls

Emily Shaw, a senior analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes accountable and transparent government and politics, called the policy of keeping contracts secret “an extreme outlier.”

The embattled state flag of Mississippi incorporates the Confederate battle symbol.

Naturally, the press has pushed back. “Someone needs to remind the Mississippi Legislature that it works for the people, that it’s not meant to be a cabal as it seems to believe,’’ The Clarion Ledger editorialized.

“The recent election, and the comments of parents at the EdBuild hearing, show people don’t exactly view the government as trustworthy,” The Sun Herald wrote. “That’s a problem for government. And secrecy won’t solve it.”

No matter what EdBuild ultimately decides to recommend, they’d do well to keep an eye on the critical issue at hand: For far too many years, the children of Mississippi have started behind, and without better schools they may never get a leg up. MAEP has only been fully funded twice, leaving many schools without basic services and resources.

As Lesseig noted before the crowded state capitol: “Governor William Winter [1980-1984] has often said, ‘the only road out of poverty runs by the schoolhouse door.’ But if the schoolhouse door is busted, the schoolhouse ceiling is falling in and the school has no resources for students, and the schoolhouse teachers are under trained, underpaid and overburdened, how far along that road can we actually go?’”

Another fed up parent, ignoring the plea not to display emotion, choked up as she told the crowd:

“We have written letters, we have signed petitions, we have marched,” she said. “I don’t know if you wake up in the middle of the night, worried about kids who come to school hungry and sleepy. Their only hope is education.’’

Liz Willen is editor-in-chief of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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