GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – Mississippi’s public grade schools could be fully funded for the first time since 2008 if the state legislature follows one senator’s recommendation.

State Sen. Dennis DeBar (R- Leakesville), the chair of the chamber’s education committee, told committee members Tuesday, Feb. 28 he intends to lead efforts to fully fund public schools, in part with “minor changes” to the state funding formula.

“What we’re bringing these code sections forward for is, as you’re aware, we’ve had a goal of fully funding MAEP every year we’ve been in this term. We’ve basically had a plan from the very beginning to institute teacher pay raises which we’ve done, and now we’re at the point where we have money to potentially fully fund MAEP,” DeBar said.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) was established by the state legislature in 1997 as the funding formula used to allocate money to public schools. MAEP uses a formula to determine the minimum amount each school district needs to be operational and earn an average “C” grade for student achievement.

Since 2003, state lawmakers have allocated the full amount MAEP called for only twice. Since 2008, Mississippi’s public schools have been shorted $3.3 billion. 

The plan to fully fund MAEP comes after a record year of state revenue. Mississippi raked in $7.38 billion in the last fiscal year, $1.46 billion higher than expected. In response, the legislature passed the largest-ever state income tax cut. While education was the largest line item in last year’s state budget at $2.1 billion, schools were still underfunded by $273 million.

The state legislature underfunded Greene Co. Schools by $1.2 million in the current school year.

For George Co., it’s $2.6 million. Since the 2008-2009 school year, the district has been underfunded by $30.2 million, according to Chief Financial Officer Natasha Henderson.

FY2023 Full MAEP FundingFY2023 Actual Amount AllocatedFY2023 DifferenceTotal difference from 2009-2023
George Co. Schools$24,837,468$22,230,598-$2,606,870-$30,238,475
Greene Co. Schools$10,278,643$9,199,826-$1,078,817-$14,544,586

Operating costs continue to rise for school districts across Mississippi as the state funding gap has remained steady.

In Greene Co. Schools, fuel costs nearly tripled over the past two years. It spent $120,000 on fuel during the 2020-2021 school year. The cost jumped to $260,000 last year and is budgeted at $343,000 for the 2022-2023 school year.

Health insurance costs were expected to rise by 6% for the George County School District for the current school year. While the state legislature funded the largest teacher pay raise in decades in the 2022 session, both districts chose to raise pay on their own accord for non-teaching staff.

“Obviously, we’re happy for the teachers getting the pay raise. That was needed to be competitive. But at the same time, we have more needs than just that. You’re talking 14 years now of underfunding and you’re seeing it in the facilities and infrastructure,” George Hedgepeth, Greene County Schools’ treasurer told WKRG in July.

A Feb. 13 report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee indicates the state is on track to exceed last year’s record revenue. With five months to go in the fiscal year, revenue collected through the end of January is $502 million, or 13.2%, higher than expected.

One senate education committee member expressed concern that fully funding schools this year could set an unwanted precedent. State Sen. Brice Wiggins (R- Pascagoula) said when revenue is down, lawmakers will have to prioritize what receives funding. He believes if MAEP gets cut again, public school advocates could be quick to criticize.

“We’ve got money because of decisions being made and one time money but that day will come when there will be a downturn and we have to make those decisions,” Wiggins said. “Fully funding MAEP is less money for bulletproof vests, assistant teachers, and all these other things.”

DeBar said he sees fully funding schools as fulfilling a priority the committee had since they took office in 2020 and is not as worried about taking a public hit if the group chooses to draw back school funding in future years. DeBar and Wiggins are among seven out of the 15 senate education committee members running unopposed in this year’s statewide election.

“For four years now, the education community has trusted this committee to do the right thing and at some point we need to be able to trust [them] that they will not then beat us up when the economy takes a downturn and revenue is short,” DeBar said.

The debate came during the committee’s consideration of House Bill 1369. Passed unanimously by the House, it would change the funding formula to account for the number of enrolled students in the district, instead of average daily attendance. Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) data found 28% of students were chronically absent last school year.

DeBar noted he will recommend other changes later in the legislative session to how the MAEP formula is calculated, moving the target on what fully funding schools will look like to make it more achievable in future years.

“Chairman DeBar has proven himself to the education community as a trustworthy leader. My hope and expectation is that the proposed changes will not be detrimental to the MAEP but will, in fact, strengthen school funding for the long haul,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of public school advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign.

State Sen. Wiggins suggested one of the changes to education funding should be requiring school districts to fully maximize the amount they are allowed to levy local taxpayers: 55 mills.

Both school districts in George and Greene counties maintained the same millage for the 2022-2023 school year as the previous year. Greene Co. currently levies 47.25 mills, or $47.25 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value. George Co. Schools levied 49.57 mills.

Wiggins said he knows of counties that refuse to assess maximum property taxes and expect lawmakers to fully fund the state’s contribution.

“That is just patently unfair in my opinion and leads to a lot of problems,” Wiggins said. “If they want the state to fully fund MAEP, then counties need to put their money and their taxpayers and their taxes where their mouth is.”

Each district is required to provide up to 27% in local contributions for the cost-per-student. George Co. budgets 19.1% of total revenue from property tax and other local revenue (like athletic event ticket sales and bank account interest). 53% of revenue comes from the state, 27.6% from federal funding.

Greene Co. budgets 25-30% of revenue from local sources, 44% from the state, and 25% from federal funding.

Greene Co. Schools was one of 21 districts to sue the state for underfunding MAEP in 2015. The state Supreme Court ruled that MAEP is not a mandate and the legislature can fund K-12 public school districts at its own discretion each year.

House Bill 1369 is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee before House and Senate leaders meet in conference committees to negotiate amendments at the end of the session and introduce the final version for a full vote in each chamber.

The 2023 legislative session ends April 2.