Possible MAEP revisions to be hammered out by handful of legislators

JACKSON -- Major changes could be made to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program during the final weeks of the 2016 session even though, as of yet, those changes have not been discussed in the Education committees or on the floor of either chamber.

Legislation has passed the House and is pending in the Senate Education Committee that does nothing to change the MAEP funding formula but has all of the code sections alive so that later in the process changes could be made.

House and Senate leaders say the plan is to send that "placeholder" bill to a conference committee where six legislative leaders (three from each chamber) will try to reach agreement on what, if any, changes need to be made to MAEP.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is the mechanism that directs state funds to the local school districts for basic operations, such as for teacher salaries, utilities and maintenance. The funding of the MAEP has been a constant fight in the legislative process.

It has been underfunded $1.7 billion since 2008 and, based on legislation alive this session, is expected to be underfunded between $130 million and $170 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Changes proposed in the conference committee could reduce the amount of state money going to the local school districts.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who was one of the original authors of the MAEP legislation in 1997, said any of the changes made to the formula should go through the normal legislative process.

"It is like everything else we do. It works out much better to allow public debate and discussion," Bryan said.

Normally, legislation is debated in both committee and by the full chambers, and members can offer amendments to change the bill. Then a conference committee might be needed at the end of the process to work out the differences between what the House and Senate passed.

But the plan is to send the MAEP "placeholder" bill to conference where the first work will be done on what changes need to be made. Then the two chambers can vote those changes up or down or send the bill back for additional negotiations at the end of the session when many issues are before legislators during the final hectic days.

When asked why the normal legislative process is not being followed for the MAEP legislation, Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said, "The process we are following is part of the normal process. If a bill goes to conference and changes are made, everybody knows about them. It has happened before."

House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said passing "the placeholder" bill gives the leadership more time to mull possible changes to the funding formula, which accounts for the largest single state expenditure -- $2.14 billion for the current fiscal year.

"We want to be careful about the changes" to make sure of their effect, Moore said.

But Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said, "I am concerned about letting six people decide some of the biggest issues before the Legislature. I think we need to be having committee meetings and debating these issues in the open so people know what is going on."

The legislative leadership has opted to follow the path of waiting to conference committee to resolve not only the possible MAEP revisions, but also the issue of whether to raise taxes for a new infrastructure improvements program in the state.

"No matter who the conferees are, we do better when we have public debate," said Bryan.

The possible changes to the MAEP could include Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' proposal to provide the amount of funds needed to operate A and B schools instead of C schools. According to the Mississippi Department of Education, basing the funding formula on the cost to operate typical A and B schools instead of C schools would reduce the annual appropriations to the local school districts by about $80 million.

"Mississippi should base spending on how effective districts spend tax dollars and incorporate those practices in to the formula," Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp said earlier this session. "That is why he wants to consider how A and B districts spend money in the formula rather than utilizing spending habits of the average C district.

"It is a fact that A and B districts spend more money in the classroom and less on administration than you find in the C, D, and F districts."

When asked what the final revisions of MAEP might look like, Tollison said, "That will be decided between now and the end of the session."