Rep. Jeff Smith, right, speaks at the Education Town Hall organized by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce Thursday night. Smith was one of four local legislators who answered questions about education issues in the state. Photo by: Mary Pollitz/Dispatch Staff
LCSD Superintendent Lynn Wright, left, speaks at the Education Town Hall organized by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce Thursday night. CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat, LCSD Board President Brian Clark, CMSD Board President Jason Spears and Heritage Academy Headmaster Greg Carlyle all attended and discussed education reform for the state.
Photo by: Mary Pollitz/Dispatch Staff
December 7, 2018 10:35:24 AM
Mississippi Rep. Jeff Smith believes claims the Legislature under-funds public education are inaccurate.
Smith was one of four legislators who took questions Thursday night at the education town hall, hosted by The Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce's Education Committee at the Courtyard-Marriott in Columbus. Representatives held conversations about educational concerns in the state, which included school funding for various programs.
When asked about funding, Smith sharply said the funding for education has actually increased in past years.
"I went to the Legislature in 1992, and we had $958 million that went to public education," Smith said. "(For 2019), the K-12 budget was approved at $2.5 (billion). Does that sound like it's been cut? MDE and some of the teacher units say the Legislature doesn't fund education. B.S. That is not true. We do not fully fund MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program), because there are other parts of education."
About 50 people turned out for the town hall, with an additional 50 watching on Facebook live. CLCC posed specific questions to Legislators and area educators as part of the event.
Reps. Smith, Gary Chism, Cheikh Taylor and Sen. Angela Turner-Ford answered questions from the moderator, Suzanne Bean. Unlike last year, audience members saw an educator's perspective with Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat, Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright, LCSD Board President Brian Clark, CMSD Board President Jason Spears and Heritage Academy Headmaster Greg Carlyle also answering questions.
Many of the questions asked to legislators and educators dealt with school funding, including pre-K programs, Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
School representatives spoke vehemently about the benefits of early education, specifically pre-K programs. Wright said LCSD has both tuition-based and free pre-K programs, both of which have shown drastic improvements in student academic success.
Chism then referenced the lottery bill, which legislators approved in August. He said the first $80 million collected in the lottery will go toward roads and bridges, and anything exceeding that will help fund early childhood education in the state. Though Chism said, at this point, there is not a set structure for how those funds will be allotted for public pre-K education.
"So, buy the lottery tickets and you will have it funded," Chism said. "We think we will fall pretty close in around what Arkansas did, and they are expecting about $100 million. So, it's on its way. So there won't be any additional legislation here in this particular session."
Taylor disagreed with Chism's prediction of funds coming from the lottery.
"To get to that $80 million, it is going to be a struggle," Taylor said. "We need to pass amendments and different pieces of legislation to make early education a priority. I don't want us to miss that part."
Teacher pay, retention
Teacher retention and pay raises came up, as well, and those conversations concluded in a unified front. Clark even asked legislators to fund programs to push more students into teaching, since the teacher shortage in Mississippi has continued to grow.
"You may have a $60,000 loan for a teacher degree and you're only making $30,000 a year to pay that loan off," Clark said. "It's in your heart (to teach), but at the same time I think you need to have a tax incentive or more of an incentive to help those people pay off their student loans."
Though legislators said there aren't incentives in the works now, Taylor added that educators should continue to communicate with state legislators so lawmakers can "be in tune" to what is needed.
With gun violence, drug use and bullying entering the school systems nationwide, educators and legislators spoke about increased school safety.
Taylor immediately discussed gun reform as an action of lessening school violence, while Wright suggested arming teachers could deter gun violence and even save lives. Labat did not agree or disagree with Taylor, but said the root of the issue occurs much earlier. She added schools need more funding and resources to help struggling students.
"Mental illness and trauma, we deal with it every day," Labat said. "I don't want to focus on the gun issues as much as mental health and counseling and dealing with trauma. Everything that's happening in the city of Columbus is happening at CMSD and we're dealing with it."
Lisa James, president of CLCC, said the chamber has been working to grow this event. By adding educators to the platform, James said she feels that the event has grown in value since last year's meeting and will continue to do so.
"The chamber's goal in hosting education town hall is transparency and communication," James said. "We want to provide the community the opportunity to hear from the legislators and vice-versa."
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