September 10, 2019 10:47:11 AM
School funding, early childhood education and district boundaries are top concerns and priorities for the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees for next year's state legislative session.
The board took the Mississippi School Board Association's 2020 legislative survey at its regular meeting Monday. MSBA's lobbying arm supports or opposes legislation related to public education based on the results of the survey conducted every fall. All boards that belong to MSBA must turn in their survey results by Oct. 18.
The survey asks school boards to support, oppose or give no opinion on 21 possible pieces of legislation about a range of which issues are most important to the board for the coming year.
Board member Fredrick Sparks said funding is his biggest legislative concern, and board secretary Josie Shumake said hers is the "creeping movement of funding from public to nonpublic schools."
The board unanimously supported legislation that would fully fund public schools. It opposed fostering charter schools, creating scholarships for students in nonpublic schools, diverting public funds to nonpublic or virtual schools or providing an income tax deduction to parents whose children attend private schools.
The question of whether to support changing the way public schools are funded led to a split vote. Sparks and Yvonne Cox voted yes, and the other three board members voted no.
"I look at it from the standpoint of seeing what we have now, and (if) there is an opportunity to change it, hopefully it will change for the better," Sparks said.
The board unanimously supported "creating a structured, statewide approach to quality early childhood education," according to the survey, and Cox said this is her main legislative concern.
The Mississippi Department of Education assigns accountability ratings to schools and districts on an A-F scale, and the survey asked whether students who attend districts rated C, D or F should be allowed to transfer to A and B districts. The board unanimously voted no, and board member Telisa Clay Young put it on the list of concerns.
Columbus is currently rated a D district.
Maintaining boundaries between school districts is a matter of fairness, Board President Jason Spears told The Dispatch after the meeting.
"It wouldn't be fair for us to take students from some other school district if we were an A or B district, and it wouldn't be fair for our teachers and staff working so hard to improve the education here if some other neighboring school district that may be performing better at that particular interval (could) take students out of our district," Spears said.
Additionally, school employees should not be allowed to carry guns on campus, even with proper training, the board agreed.
The board unanimously supported increasing teachers' salaries, providing incentives to people majoring in education and allowing school board members to be removed from office for ethical violations.
Most of the board agreed that legislation to start and end all the members' terms at once would not be a good idea. Sparks voted no opinion.
Spears spoke in favor of the staggered terms the board currently has, and said "losing everyone just creates chaos" and inconsistency.
He opposed legislation increasing compensation for school board members, and Shumake voted no opinion, but the rest of the board supported it.
Cox and Young were the only supporting votes for legislation increasing qualifications for school board members. Spears said this vote was with other school districts in mind.
"Sometimes when you get over into different parts of the state, depending on the requirements that you're putting in, they might not be able to have candidates who can hold that particular position in their local district," Spears said.
The final survey question asked if schools spend too much time testing instead of teaching, and the board deferred to Superintendent Cherie Labat. She said schools do test too much and assessments at the beginning and end of the school year would be the most effective measurements of student achievement.
"I think we don't have a problem with accountability and assessment," Labat said. "I think the problem lies in focus and how we're evaluated based on that focus."