March 11, 2017 10:12:34 PM
JACKSON -- Senators moved Thursday to fund public schools for 2017-2018, intensifying the question of whether lawmakers will rewrite Mississippi's school funding formula in coming weeks.
The Senate Appropriations Committee amended House Bill 1502, restoring $2.24 billion to spend using the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program. That's the same amount lawmakers are spending this year.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, have said it's their top goal this session to replace that 20-year-old formula with a new plan.
The current formula calls for a certain amount of money each year, based on how much average school districts spend. Lawmakers have only met the target twice in 20 years. The amount the Senate proposed Thursday would be $193 million short of the $2.43 billion the formula calls for in the year beginning July 1.
The bill now also includes $20 million to give promised bonuses to teachers in schools rated A or B, or schools that improve their ratings.
After the Senate committee acted Thursday, Gunn acknowledged that the formula may not be rewritten before the regular session ends.
"It could be before we go home in three weeks and, if not, it would be, hopefully, shortly thereafter," Gunn said. "But I'm not putting any timetable on it."
Republicans say they want a new formula to link money more explicitly to the needs of each student. A new formula could also end the annual exercise of computing the shortfall, because there might not be any way of computing how much money is required besides what lawmakers say.
Lawmakers embraced most of a proposal by nonprofit consulting group EdBuild. But they rejected a call to increase local contributions, which could force about 30 property-rich districts to raise taxes or cut spending. Lawmakers have said any plan won't raise a district's local contribution above the current cap of 27 percent of formula funding.
Estimates by The Associated Press show it would cost the state roughly $145 million more if lawmakers adopt other EdBuild recommendations without requiring more local tax money.
Earlier, it appeared Reeves and Gunn were close to making a joint proposal. Gunn, of Clinton, stripped funding for next year out of the House bill, saying he wanted lawmakers to consider next year's funding and a rewrite together in a special session during the regular session.
Gunn said he still hopes to start phasing in a new formula during 2017-18.
"It is not our intent to fund through MAEP," he said. "It is our intent to fund through the new formula."
Reeves appears to be in less of a hurry, repeating Thursday that he wants a new formula done "the right way, not the quickest way."
The lack of a spending plan for 2017-2018 pressured lawmakers to act, because school districts want to know how much money to expect while planning for next year. Teachers' contracts are typically signed in April.
"The schools can plan," Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said of Thursday's action.
Tollison said the aim had always been to give districts basically what they are getting this year, even under a new formula. He said that's an achievement considering budget reductions elsewhere in state government.
"We are level-funding MAEP in a year when agencies are seeing significant cuts," Tollison said.
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