Miss. ed chief aware of funding hurdles

Published 1:22 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Incoming Mississippi Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham will resume duties as chief of K-12 public education during some of the toughest economic times in recent memory, and even he says it’s “intimidating.”

Burnham’s first day is Jan. 4, but he’s been on the job unofficially for weeks, monitoring developments as key legislators and Gov. Haley Barbour released spending proposals for the next fiscal year.

It’s a safe bet public education will have to fight harder for a share of state budget dollars. Burnham feels he’s up for the task since lobbying lawmakers isn’t foreign to him.

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Burnham served as Mississippi’s education superintendent from 1992-1997, before leaving to become executive director of the Gulf Coast Education Initiative Consortium. He was hired last month after serving as dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi.

Burnham said he’ll tell lawmakers “education is an investment in the future. It has a tremendous return decades later. That will always be the approach I will take.”

However, he’s also acutely aware of the challenges ahead.

“I would be less than candid if I didn’t say I was slightly intimidated by it,” Burnham said, referring to the state’s economy.

For the first five months of the current fiscal year, Mississippi tax collections are 7.3 percent below expectations. Figures recently released by the state Tax Commission show collections for the general fund, the main part of the state budget, were $129.8 million behind the original predictions for July through November.

Barbour has already cut $226 million from this year’s spending plan. That means most agencies have lost at least 5 percent of their budget, and Barbour has warned that more cuts could come.

The governor’s proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010, isn’t encouraging. Barbour’s funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a formula used to decide how much money each district receives, is nearly 13 percent below this year’s level.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee has recommended MAEP spending at about 6.3 percent below the current level.

Neither plan promises significant funding increases for a large number of agencies and programs. That means public education will be alongside many others jockeying for legislative support.

“When the pie gets smaller, the fight gets tougher,” said House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, a Democrat from Jackson who is also on the Budget Committee.

Brown said he’s been meeting with the education community, including superintendents, the school board association and advocacy groups.

“Everybody understands they’re going to have to take a share of the pain,” Brown said. “At the same time, we keep hearing from folks that we need to prioritize. Certainly, education is right there at the top of the priority.”

Many school districts are having trouble paying bills, said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Mississippi Parents Campaign, a group that lobbies on behalf of education issues.

She said several districts that had reserve money have spent most of it to cover budget cuts.

“In almost every school district, class size is starting to creep up. That will worsen as funding goes down. Some school districts have consolidated bus routes, field trips have been cut and arts programs cut or diminished,” she said. “They’re really trying to avoid laying off staff.”

Burnham said the public school system will have to make the best use of its resources, but “what we’re dealing with right now is unprecedented.”