By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Citizens in Oktibbeha County work hard to support their schools. They pay a greater share of property taxes for their schools than do the citizens of Tupelo.

The problem is that Oktibbeha County has much less to tax than Tupelo. The result is that local taxes provide $1,502 per pupil each year in Tupelo compared to $909 per pupil in Oktibbeha County.

Despite the discrepancy in spending, the citizens of Oktibbeha County pay 61 mills in taxes compared to 41 mills for the residents of Tupelo.

In other words, people in Oktibbeha pay $61 for each $1,000 of property assessed for taxes or $20 more than the citizens of Tupelo. The millage rate comparison was based on 1994-95 figures to provide for the operation of the district. Those comparisons did not include mills levied for capital improvements and other items. When those items are factored in, Tupelo pays about 13 mills less than Oktibbeha County.

People in Oktibbeha County are sacrificing more to improve their district, but because of a lack of a tax base, they're not able to provide as much funding as the residents of Tupelo.

"A child should not be penalized because he or she is born in a district with a low property tax base," said Sen. Grey Ferris, D-Vicksburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

But in Mississippi children are.

The Tupelo and Oktibbeha County districts are examples of that. These districts, though, are the exception because they both levy higher-than-usual local taxes to support the schools. In Nettleton, for instance, 31 mills, which is closer to the state average, brings in only $293 per child.

School districts also receive state and federal funding. Mississippi's average per pupil expenditure of $4,211 is next to last. And if not for federal help, the state would surely be last in per pupil expenditures. The percentage of federal funds the state receives for education is higher than any other state.

"A lot of our problems in public education are because of the level of funding," Ferris said. "Funding is a critical problem that is going to get worse in years to come."

What's the solution?

Ferris is hoping that a proposal developed in part by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, will help remedy that funding problem. It is called the Adequate Education Program and would attempt to bring all school districts up to a certain level of funding while not taking money away from the wealthy districts.

The program was passed during the last legislative term, but was not funded.

Bryan said the program's cost would vary depending on how much local governments were mandated to pay for education. The proposal in 1994 would have cost the state an additional $238.9 million during fiscal year 1995.

In a nutshell, the additional money would be used to ensure every child in the state received an adequate education. Bryan said the people who developed the proposal, which included then senator and now Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, decided to use the state Department of Education guidelines for an adequate education.

Under those guidelines, Level 3 is called adequate. Districts are supposed to reach Level 3 to meet accreditation standards. Based on research, Bryan said some districts do not receive adequate funding to maintain Level 3 accreditation.

Under Bryan's proposal, each local school district would be required to levy only 20 mills in taxes, although more could be levied if the community desired.

The state would make up the difference between the 20 mills on the local level and the amount deemed necessary, based on research, to make sure the district reached that adequate level.

Research determined it costs $2,150 per child for a district to have enough money to reach Level 3 standards. The Adequate Education Program would pay an additional 5 percent on top of the $2,150 for each free-lunch child in an effort to help districts with at-risk children. The $2,150 per child per year does not include the expensive items of transportation, capital improvements and special education that bring funding up to more than $4,000 per child.

"It is important to note that every district gets more money under this proposal," Bryan said. "We would not be taking away from the wealthy districts to help the poor ones."

What about other states?

In many states, money has been taken from the wealthy ones to help the poorer ones. In several states, including Texas and Kentucky, poor school districts have taken the state to court because of unequal funding.

Bryan said Mississippi needs to pass the Adequate Education Program for two reasons.

"State after state has gotten in trouble trying to settle court cases after it was ruled their funding was not fair," he said. "Plus it is not fair that poor districts cannot finance their schools."

While Bryan said it is crucial for Mississippi to correct the equity funding problem, he understands it cannot be done during the 1996 session.

Most legislative leaders say no new, expensive programs will be enacted this year because of tight budgeting.

"I believe 97-98 will be the two years when we have a window of opportunity," Bryan said. Plus Bryan said not acting this year will give new legislators, elected in November and still learning the system, time to study the proposal.

During this time period, he said supporters hope to create some type of grassroots effort for the program. Bryan said the program should have mass support if people understand that it ensures all students receive an adequate education.

Supporters are trying to garner support so they do not miss an opportunity to enact the Adequate Education Program. Bryan and Senate Education Committee Chairman Ferris said the Legislature missed "a golden opportunity" to fund the program during the past session when the state was experiencing double-digit growth in revenues.

Bryan said leadership was lacking in the Senate during the past session to fund the program. But that leadership is now there. Musgrove, who helped put the proposal together, is now lieutenant governor. Bryan is chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Another architect of the proposal, Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, is chairman of Judiciary, another powerful committee.

And what about leadership from the governor? Jeanne Forrester, Gov. Kirk Fordice's education adviser, made no promises on how the governor would react to the program.

"Actually the governor initiated a look at the funding formula back in 1993," said Forrester, pointing out Fordice appointed Musgrove, Bryan and others to the task force that developed the Adequate Education Program. She said the governor supports equity funding, "but the final tab looks prohibitive."

But supporters say the final tab could be much more prohibitive if federal courts order the state to spend more money on the poorer school districts.

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