Analysis: Community college chiefs could join farm lobby in opposing school funding initiative



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JACKSON, Mississippi — The skies were already clouding over for an initiative meant to require higher funding of Mississippi's education system. But they're getting darker.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation is opposing Initiative 42, which would amend the state Constitution to require an "adequate and efficient system of public schools" and try to close the Legislature's wiggle room on spending less. And community college forces also appear to be lining up against the amendment.

Supporters led by the Better Schools, Better Jobs group say Mississippi needs to put more money into K-12 education, meeting the commitment lawmakers made to provide enough funding for midlevel education when they passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Since the MAEP funding formula was passed, it's only been fully funded twice. Over the past seven years, Mississippi has fallen $1.5 billion short of the amount mandated.

But chances for passage got worse when legislative Republicans pushed through an alternative proposal for voters to consider, calling instead for "an effective system of free public schools." That amendment does more to preserve legislative authority over funding.

It also complicates the math for passing either choice. That's because any proposal must win a majority of total votes cast on an issue and at least 40 percent of total votes in the election. With voters in favor of a change dividing between two possible alternatives, it makes it less likely that either will reach the 40 percent threshold.

The Farm Bureau, at its December annual meeting, adopted a policy opposing the initiative, stating "Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation opposes funding education through a constitutional amendment."

The federation claims 192,000 members across the state. Many of those are farmers, but others join their county farm bureau as part of buying insurance that the organization offers.

Community colleges, like the Farm Bureau, have a reputation for political power in Mississippi. It's been clear that part of the strategy of opponents has been to warn that any court-mandated increases in K-12 funding will come out of the budgets of community colleges and universities. For example, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked during October budget hearings what university and community colleges would do if their budgets were cut by more than $300 million.

Now it appears that divide-and-conquer strategy is bearing some fruit. Northeast Mississippi Community College President Johnny Allen told the Community College Board in January that he was concerned about the potential impact of the amendment.

Allen, also president of the Mississippi Association of Junior and Community Colleges, said opinions divided on whether community colleges could lose all state aid, or just 25 percent to 30 percent.

"Regardless of your opinion of the effect, it will not be good," he told the board. "The accessibility and affordability just goes right out the window. It has the potential to close a lot of community colleges around the state."

Patsy Brumfield, a spokeswoman for pro-initiative group Better Schools, Better Jobs, said opponents are trying to "break public education apart."

"I think they are wrong to think there is not enough money for all of us," she said.

Better Schools, Better Jobs hasn't been sitting still since the House and Senate passed the referendum alternative. The group, which raised $1.35 million through November, has bought full-page ads in newspapers handing out Fs to lawmakers who voted for the alternative. "These legislators failed your children," the ads say. "They chose politics over our local schools."

Brumfield said the group isn't giving up.

"There's this great big scary force out there that's aligning the pieces of the chess game and we'll just have to align our pieces," she said.


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