Enrollment at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science is the lowest it has been in years, despite an increase in the number applicants.
Next year, MSMS will have about 235 students total, which is approximately 15 percent lower than typical enrollment levels. School leaders say six years of stagnant funding is to blame.
“If we do not see an increase next year, that number will be reduced even more because we have even less money to use to help offset some of the costs,” executive director Germain McConnell told The Dispatch on Thursday.
The magnet school set up for the state’s gifted and talented high school juniors and seniors has held closer to 275 students in the past, which is what McConnell would like to see again.
The falling enrollment is due to the Legislature not increasing the school’s budget since 2010, according to Wade Leonard, coordinator of alumni and public relations.
The school gets $4,495,000 from the Legislature each year.
The school got an additional $125,000 for Fiscal Year 2015, but that was to pay teachers, not to offset the costs of operation, according to Leonard. McConnell said that while school administration is grateful that state lawmakers have not cut funding, it is difficult for MSMS to keep up with rising costs when the budget is not increasing as well.
It’s a problem, McConnell said, because the school was set up specifically to give academically gifted and talented students a school where they could be challenged and have opportunities to pursue educational and career paths that may not have been possible in their home school districts. Many school districts cannot afford to hire teachers to provide calculus or other advanced courses to the handful of students that need it, McConnell said. At MSMS, students can take those courses.
It’s particularly important for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, said Leonard.
“I’ve spent several years running all over the state of Mississippi talking to kids from every kind of background you can imagine,” he said. “And nothing makes me prouder of this institution than seeing someone who ought to be statistically continuing down a very particular path who comes here and has the entire world opened up to them.”
As the costs of housing and educating students increases while the school’s budget stays level, MSMS is having to cut back. School officials say they have trimmed the amount of money spent on technology and gone without hiring staff to teach engineering and other programs.
While no staff cuts have been made so far, McConnell says some positions may be cut in the 2017-2018 school year if funding levels remain constant.
Leonard said as some instructors have left, though, their positions have not been filled.
“With that rising number of applications and the reduction in the number we can take — that’s what really hurts,” McConnell said. “It hurts in a real way to students out there who are not going to be able to take some of those advanced courses that will open the door for them to receive those huge scholarships.”
Students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch have to pay a $1,000 fee for food each year, and those funds only chip away at the cost of feeding the students, Leonard said. Then there’s the costs of technology, maintenance of buildings, teachers and staff who can supervise the students in residential halls.
MSMS also doesn’t get allotted funding for building renovations and the construction of new facilities, unlike other schools in the state, according to Leonard.
This isn’t a new problem, McConnell and Leonard said. Parents of students and alumni of the school have known about the budgetary constraints for several years now. During the recession, all school districts, including MSMS, were cut. MSMS tried to maintain the number of students it accepted by supplementing its budget with reserve funds set aside for things like capital improvements and financial emergencies, McConnell said.
“It never was intended to be used to offset costs from our operating budget,” McConnell said. “But we’ve done that over the years with the hope that after this thing turns around that we would see more increase that we could continue to bring in larger number of students.”
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