JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippians might be forgiven for drawing the wrong conclusions from state Auditor Stacey Pickering's latest broadside against flaws he sees in the state's public school funding formula.
Pickering said he's not against the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, that he's not alleging the state's 146 school districts are intentionally manipulating the formula to obtain more cash from the state and that he's not necessarily calling for lawmakers to limit local spending autonomy.
The Republican said his criticisms are meant as information for lawmakers to consider. But it's clear he wants them to think about doing something.
"The MAEP funding formula is not sacrosanct at all," he said.
Under the program, districts get a yearly lump sum they can spend as they please. That was a change from Mississippi's previous system of school funding, called the Minimum Program, which gave districts certain amounts specifically for books, buses and teachers.
Pickering noted a growing share of school spending has gone to pay principals, assistant principals and central office employees in recent years, saying that's proof local spending decisions lack "oversight or accountability."
But when asked if he thinks the state should return to appropriating money only for specific items, Pickering said that's not his call.
"It's not my decision to be the appropriator, to decide where the money goes," Pickering said.
Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, disputes Pickering's claim that schools are not accountable, noting they must meet accreditation standards and risk state takeover if they don't. He said Pickering should pursue wasteful districts, but stop meddling in policy.
"It's his job to go after that district, not to dictate the whole state of public education from the auditor's office," Bounds said.
Pickering attacks the whole concept of MAEP underfunding — the cumulative $1.5 billion that lawmakers have fallen short over the last seven years in providing the money the formula says is needed for a midlevel education. Pickering described the argument as "not valid," saying the formula has been changed so many times that there's little basis for year-to-year comparison.
"Which formula are we going to stay with or go back to?" he said.
Pickering also fears districts will inflate money they're due under the formula. More than one-third of districts now qualify all students for free meals under the federal lunch and breakfast programs. Mississippi provides extra money to districts for at-risk students based on how many students receive free lunches. The auditor has complained previously that federal rules bar him from examining income figures that students turn in to qualify for free lunches. Now, Pickering estimates $9 million more could be provided by MAEP to districts who submit 100 percent figures instead of old levels, assuming full funding of the formula.
The auditor also opposes setting funding based on enrollment instead of average daily attendance.
Todd Ivey, chief operating officer of the state Department of Education, said schools can't cut expenses just because some students are absent on an average day.
"The heating costs and cooling costs of a building don't go down because 950 kids show up out of 975 enrolled," he said.
Pickering, though, said basing funding on enrollment would remove a district's incentive to get kids to attend regularly. Pickering was a driving force behind a law that says a student must be present for 63 percent of a day to be counted for funding.
Bounds said it's insulting to imply districts would let kids skip class if it wouldn't affect funding: "He acts like the only reason we have to get children to school is the money."
Online: Pickering MAEP report: http://1.usa.gov/1DEySta
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