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BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — Shannon Eubanks’ office walls are adorned with brightly colored artwork by his sixth-grade daughter, Kelly. The elementary school principal finds the owl and giraffe creations that stare at him each day both beautiful and heartbreaking.
Eubanks just spent several months campaigning tirelessly for passage of Initiative 42, a grassroots effort aimed at strengthening state funding for Mississippi’s lagging public schools. One of the things Eubanks hoped for was additional money to hire an art teacher to work with elementary students at Enterprise Attendance Center, the 840-student school he leads and his daughter attends.
But hopes of bringing art instruction to this rural Lincoln County school some 65 miles southwest of Jackson dimmed in early November, after voters rejected an initiative that would have amended the state’s constitution to require an “adequate and efficient” system of public schools. If Initiative 42 had passed, Eubanks’ school district would have received about $1.3 million additional dollars. Statewide, an additional $200 million would have been infused into the state’s struggling public school system.
“I felt like we really needed that money to give our students what they need and deserve — the kinds of things that are taken for granted other places,” Eubanks said, adding he also needs upgraded buses, more classroom space, teacher aides and other staff.
The statewide election was decided by one of the lowest voter turnouts in state history, with only about 672,000 people voting on the measure and more than 300,000 supporting the initiative. Because school district budgets for the current school year were in place before the Initiative 42 vote, none will see cuts this year.
Yet throughout the state, educators like Eubanks dared to hope for more money for the 2016-17 school year: money for updated textbooks, building repairs, student computers and additional staff to reduce class sizes and help struggling students.
Instead, district administrators are again playing a familiar waiting game — looking to the state legislature and hoping lawmakers choose to fully fund public education during the upcoming session, which kicks off in January. The best most superintendents hope for is full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the funding formula that became law in 1997 but has only been followed twice in 18 years. If Initiative 42 had passed, lawmakers would have been required by the constitution to follow the formula.
The MAEP law itself may even be on the chopping block if some Mississippi Republican leaders have their way. The day after Initiative 42’s defeat, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn both said they wanted to make changes to the funding formula.
Reeves said he wants to fund schools based on average per-student expenditures of districts that currently have a B or higher rating on the state’s accountability model. The model assigns schools student-like grades of A, B, C, D or F, based on a mix of indicators including test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. And, like students with low grades, districts rated a D or F are considered unsuccessful. Schools that repeatedly fail can be taken over by the state.
“Currently, school funding is based on the spending habits of C-level, or average, districts,” said Laura Hipp, Lt. Gov. Reeves’ Director of Communications. “If we want our students to compete nationally and internationally, we must admit that C-rated school districts are not a strong benchmark. Instead, base-student cost must be calculated using A- and B-rated district per-pupil expenditures.”
That formula could be worrisome to educators concerned about funding, since lower-rated districts are often in rural, high-poverty areas, where kids are generally more expensive to educate because they are more likely to start school behind and require additional support. Transportation costs also tend to be higher in rural, isolated areas. Because of that, Reeves’ proposal could lead to lower per-student allocations.
“We are at the mercy of the legislature again,” said West Jasper School District Superintendent Warren Woodrow. “We’ve been there before and it’s not exactly gone well for us.”
In West Jasper, which serves students in Bay Springs, about 80 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch because of low family income, according to The Children First Annual Report. The district is located about 65 miles southeast of Jackson.
Richton School District Superintendent Noal Cochran said teacher and staff morale took a tumble in his largely poor and rural South Mississippi district after voters rejected Initiative 42.
“The biggest blow to the campus is the [low] morale of teachers,” said Cochran. “It’s hard not to feel like this vote is about them. It’s as if it’s a personal indictment — that you aren’t doing your job to a level where we think you are worth full funding. It’s very hard for them.”
Cochran said he had to revert to his former role as a therapist the day after Initiative 42 failed, reminding teachers of the importance of their work, why they got into education, and why it’s important to keep doing what they can to teach students.
“We had to talk about how their goal when they became teachers wasn’t to secure full funding, it was to change lives,” Cochran said. “What we do is a relationship business — we teach children. And we will do that if all we have is a piece of chalk and some slate. It’s what we do.”
About 74 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch because of low family income.
The upcoming legislative session in January promises to be particularly contentious, especially on the issue of school spending, as Republicans and Democrats decide how much money to give to a system that serves about 490,000 students statewide and is consistently rated at or near the bottom on national rankings.
Public education advocates, frustrated by the rejection of Initiative 42 but encouraged that the vote in the politically and fiscally conservative state was not more one-sided, immediately vowed to pressure the legislature to better fund the education system that serves 90 percent of Mississippi’s schoolchildren.
“We are going to continue to impress upon legislators and the governor’s office and all the rest that just because Initiative 42 failed, that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to continue to push the effort to get the funding we need for our schools,” said Larry Green, superintendent of Western Line School District, serving about 2,000 students in a Delta district that includes a portion of Greenville, as well as the town of Metcalf and a small segment of Issaquena County. “And like any good politician who wants votes, they are going to see that 300,000 people want this funding, and it’s going to happen.”
Russ Latino, head of the anti-42 group Kids First Mississippi, said he views the defeat of 42 as a positive because its passage “could have resulted in less control for parents and educators while simultaneously creating fiscal crisis.”
At the same time, he said the initiative shone “a bright light on both legislative and local deficiencies and identified fertile common ground for meaningful reform.”
Randy Hodges, superintendent of Lauderdale County Schools, said he will be watching the legislature carefully in the upcoming session — just as he has been doing for years. He said he hopes lawmakers will recognize that a high percentage of voters are worried that the state’s schools aren’t getting the money they need.
“There were so many obstacles to getting 42 passed,” Hodges said, referring to confusion over the two-part ballot, which resulted when Republicans moved to add an alternative initiative to the ballot. “If people had just voted yes or no, I believe it would have passed. So let’s be realistic and see this for what it is. The support was there. People who care about public education should be encouraged. There is a brighter future. People expect to see something done and it just plain needs to happen. There is this myth out there that people don’t support our teachers and our schools. I think that was proved wrong here.”
Hodges said his district, in East Central Mississippi, has pressing financial needs. For example, the district — where 54 percent of students qualify for free lunch according to The Children First Report — is about three years behind schedule in upgrading the bus fleet. That means older buses that might have otherwise been retired are still running routes. The district also needs to upgrade its facilities.
“We have a lot of buildings built in the early 1960s — and in some cases even before that,” Hodges said. “There’s a lot of wear and tear on those buildings that we need to look at … even with our tax base, we don’t have the bonding capabilities to build a new school. We can maintain but it’s difficult — something of a Catch 22. All these needs aren’t going away.”
Woodrow, the West Jasper superintendent, said the defeat of Initiative 42 hurt teacher morale in his district. And he’s not sure if educators will fully recover.
“The people opposed to Initiative 42 tried very hard not to make negative comments toward teachers — because that’s wise politically,” said Woodrow. “But when you criticize education and its delivery in this state, who do you think is being criticized? It’s teachers. And it’s the teachers who suffered in all of this. They also are the ones that will now suffer quietly with fewer resources. They will be expected to meet national standards with much less money than other states.”
Lincoln County teacher Diane Crotwell said voters’ rejection of Initiative 42 was something she had a tough time handling.
“I was hoping it would bring us some of the things that we need so much,” said Crotwell, who teaches high school business classes at the K-12 school where Eubanks is principal. “I think a lot of teachers were down the day after the election. We spend a lot of our own money to buy things like workbooks, markers — basic things that we need to do our jobs. And then there were these people out there saying that we shouldn’t have more money. That was hard to take.”
Crotwell said social media, including Facebook, was an emotional landmine for her leading up to the election, as she saw friends and acquaintances posting against the initiative.
“It was hard not to just let my fingers fly, and to tell all those people off,” she said. “Now, I worry that the legislature is going to come after us and we will never get anything from them again because we bucked them. We caused attention and support to go where they didn’t want it going. I feel threatened and wonder what will happen next.”
Woodrow, the West Jasper superintendent, said administrators he knows are also quietly grappling with feelings of anger, resentment and despair, as they struggle to figure out how to make ends meet.
“Administrators are tired of being insulted, too,” Woodrow said. “The vast majority of school administrators — superintendents and principals — were sincerely trying to do something to help children. But we got a lot of insults thrown at us. There was this attitude that this was for selfish reasons. But the people I know who supported 42 had the purest reasons possible. They wanted to put roofs on buildings, they wanted to be able to give children computers to help them learn, and they wanted to buy textbooks and buses. We wanted to offer our children the things that kids in other states take for granted. How we got demonized in all of that I just don’t know.”
Woodrow said he believes most educators will soldier on, quietly putting the needs of students first. But the funding fight has left scars that might not heal easily.
“Mississippi educators are frustrated,” he said. “They are heartbroken. School people are good and resilient people. And to be honest, they have gotten used to being expected to do more with less in Mississippi. But all of this? I don’t know how easily they are going to bounce back.”
Meanwhile, as lawmakers continue to kick around ideas about funding and debate what formula is most appropriate, Eubanks said he is striving to take a long-term view of the effort to better fund the state’s schools — even while his own daughter’s sixth grade year ticks away without an art teacher in sight.
“It’s hard to be patient because we are dealing with the education and the future of children,” Eubanks said. “But until the legislature meets in January, you’ve got no real battle to fight. This is the time to rest and recuperate. Education is like any type [of] major policy. This is a long game — a marathon. It doesn’t change overnight.”