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Barbour: New MAEP calculation shows no ‘magic number’ exists

Mississippi education officials are shaving $33.8 million off the estimate of what’s needed to fully fund a complicated public schools budget formula for the coming year.

The move comes just days after legislative budget talks deadlocked in a fight over how much money to put into the schools.

Gov. Haley Barbour said the change, which is expected to be approved Friday by the Board of Education, shows there is no “magic number” in education, as he says some House members have contended the past few months.

During budget talks late Wednesday, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said Republican senators were “following Haley into hell” by not wanting to set aside $158 million in new money for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

Barbour on Thursday said House members have been “demagoguing” the issue of education funding.

“Now it turns out that this holy grail that they’ve been chasing and they have been criticizing people for, attacking people for, saying people were being led to hell for, turns out to be the wrong number,” Barbour said. “And I hope they’re embarrassed. I would be.”

The change in the MAEP figure comes as the Board of Education re-evaluates a preliminary estimate it set in August.

The new calculation takes into account millions of federal dollars that south Mississippi districts received after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, said Steve Williams, executive to the state superintendent of education. Williams said the federal money artificially changed the “instructional component” of MAEP.

The total needed for MAEP is more than $2 billion, most of which is already in place. The revised estimate shows $124.6 million of new money would be needed for full funding of MAEP in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

MAEP is a complicated formula designed to ensure each school district has enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards. It was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only once, during the last statewide election year of 2003.

Barbour, who’s expected to seek re-election next year, submitted his state budget proposals in November. His budget would put millions more dollars into public schools but would not fully fund MAEP, under either the original projection for the formula or the new one.

Writing a state budget is a long process, with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee starting its work each September for the budget that takes effect the following July 1.

State law sets a Dec. 15 deadline for the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to set a state spending blueprint that can be used as a starting point for talks during the three-month session that starts in January. The committee blew the deadline this week in a disagreement over school funding. House members wanted the full $158 million in new money for MAEP, but senators said making that commitment now would shortchange other state services.

Each year, the Department of Education and other agencies submit a preliminary estimate before the September hearings and a revised estimate before the regular legislative session starts. Lawmakers are supposed to complete the overall state budget by early April.