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Forget art class or new technology — the Greene County School District struggles to find enough money just to function, says Richard Fleming, who is in his 11th year as superintendent of the district.

underfunded schools
Richard Fleming, superintendent of the Greene County School District, says underfunding prevents the district from providing a variety of electives for students. Credit: Photo courtesy of Richard Fleming

The state uses the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to distribute funding to schools. The law is supposed to spread funds equally throughout the state, but the program has been consistently underfunded for years. Legislators have fully funded MAEP just twice since its adoption in 1997. Educators estimate schools have been underfunded by $1 billion since 2006.

This may change in November 2015, when the state will get to vote on two potential amendments to the constitution that would require the state to provide an “adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”

The Hechinger Report spoke with Fleming to learn more about how chronic underfunding has affected his school district, which is about an hour from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Q: Do you think underfunding has affected your district negatively?

A: Absolutely. Over the last couple of years we’ve had to cut several positions that we really need. You have to understand Greene County. We’re a very rural county with a small tax base, almost none. So the money we get from the state is money we depend on for our children. Any time the state funding is cut in any way, it probably affects districts like ours more so than some of the larger districts that are in places where they have money coming in from their businesses.

Related: Q & A: Mississippi superintendent explains why he gave up his salary to help relieve ‘wretched conditions’ at his schools

Q: You’ve said before that your district is in “survival mode.” What does that mean?

A: What that means is we’re nuts and bolts now. In other words, the things that we want to offer our children in the line of electives for the arts and things like that, we’re not able to do because we simply don’t have the money. We are having to use everything we’ve got to provide the basics for children.

Q: What specifically is affected by the lack of funds?

”I’m not one to say that money is the answer to every problem we have in education in Mississippi, but in Greene County money would go a long way to help us provide for our children what they need.”

A: We have been able to keep our bus fleet in good shape, but we’re not where we need to be with our textbooks by any means. We’re just getting by but it seems like we’re always behind in technology. Our buildings, we’ve got children in buildings that were built in the 1930s. That’s not good in a lot of ways. One of the building our kids are in, I was sitting in that very building in the fifth grade when they announced that John Kennedy was assassinated, and the building was old at that time. One thing we’re blessed with in Greene County is our teachers go to battle and do a very, very good job, so our students are prepared to go to college. However there’s a lot of things that should go along with that that we’re not allowed to offer, like I mentioned earlier with the arts and maybe show choir and things like that that would give our kids a more rounded experience.

Q: What do you think legislature should do about this?

A: I think it’s time that the legislature fully funds MAEP. Good gracious, let’s see what we do if we do fund it. I’m not one to say that money is the answer to every problem we have in education in Mississippi, but in Greene County money would go a long way to help us provide for our children what they need.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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