Area legislators at an education town hall meeting in Columbus Tuesday evening responded to a range of questions about education with conflicting solutions, all of which involved either cuts or increases in spending on schools.
“Let there be no (mistake),” District 41 Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus) said. “Education is under attack in this state.”
About 100 people turned out for the town hall, organized by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee. Audience members wrote questions for the legislators, and various answers were greeted with applause or mutters of annoyance. The meeting was streamed live on Facebook, where it had 485 views by the end of the event.
When answering questions, Democrats Karriem, District 16 Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (West Point) and District 38 Rep. Cheikh Taylor (Starkville) professed the need to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, while Columbus area Republicans — District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith, District 37 Rep. Gary Chism and District 17 Sen. Chuck Younger — insisted money wouldn’t fix all the problems in the state’s education system.
“We’re going to rewrite MAEP,” Chism said during introductory remarks, referring to the budget formula designed to give schools enough money to meet mid-level academic standards. “… It’s going to be focusing more on the classroom instead of the district.”
But Turner-Ford said she disagreed emphatically with rewriting the formula and that she only hoped when the legislators return home from session, they will “not have done too much damage.”
“My concern is if we continue to cut, if we continue to proceed in the direction we’re going, my question is how we will continue to fund the schools that are vital to all of us?” she said.
In 20 years, MAEP has been fully funded according to the formula only twice.
Taylor, who was elected in November to replace retired Democrat Tyrone Ellis, said he ran his campaign on fully funding MAEP and promised to push for that in Jackson.
“As educators, I want you to know that money matters,” he said. “We’ve got to be creative. We’ve got to find ways to make sure we’re impacting public education in a positive way.”
He pointed out that in the two years MAEP had been fully funded, the state had seen progress in academic scores. The rest of the time, surrounding states that pour more money into education have been “outpacing” Mississippi.
Many of the questions submitted to legislators dealt with funding for different programs, including pre-K programs, charter schools and the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. One question even suggested ways of raising taxes, such as raising the rates of hunting and fishing licenses, internet sales taxes and a state lottery.
But Chism insisted he would not support a tax increase.
“We won’t be raising hunting and license fees to supplement the budget,” he said. “… We Republicans just don’t believe in raising taxes.”
Younger suggested, rather than pouring more money into education, making sure the money goes to teachers and classrooms instead of administrators. He pointed out a superintendent in Tupelo just resigned to take a position in another state. That superintendent was making more than $225,000 annually, along with three assistants who make more than $100,000 each.
“I’m for the teachers,” he said. “I try to listen to the teachers. They can text me, they can email me, they can call me.
“The teachers have the answer to me,” he added. “But I think they need to be qualified teachers and I think you’ve got to have a good superintendent of education. … I think we need to get the money back to the teachers in the classroom and the students instead of the administration.”
The audience applauded Younger’s suggestion.
Parent and educator input
At one point during the meeting, Nadia Colom, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Columbus, interjected.
“Invite more educators to be a part of the (lawmaking) process,” she said. “Next question.”
Her suggestion was greeted with applause from the audience.
The legislators all agreed there needed to be more parent and community involvement in education as well, particularly on the local level.
“Attend your school board meetings,” Turner-Ford said. “… Actually go to the school. Talk to the teachers. Talk to … the principals.”
She said if teachers or parents weren’t satisfied with their school board’s oversight, they could also contact Mississippi Department of Education, legislators or the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Smith told the audience to become more involved with the legislative process by talking directly with legislators.
“Y’all need to ask us questions,” he said. “… If you don’t like something we do, you need to tell us.”
Colom said after the meeting she agreed with Smith that legislators should meet with parents and teachers more often in a venue where the public could ask questions and she hopes there is more open dialogue in the future.
“I agree with what everybody said tonight,” she said. “This is going to take a community effort.”
Glenn Lautzenhiser, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee, said he thought the night had been a success, with everyone from parents and educators to local business leaders and politicians attending and asking questions. He said the education committee would like to plan another similar event in the future.
“I think it was great,” he said. “I think people asked a lot of really good questions.”
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