Rhodes: Education funding is crucial
By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
April 18, 2004
Judy C. Rhodes is the director of the Office of Educational Accountability at the Mississippi Department of Education. Rhodes said the department's most critical concern right now is funding for education.
She discussed the need for education funding and student achievement in an editorial board interview with The Meridian Star.
The Meridian Star: Tell us how the state Department of Education is responding to the possibility that K-12 education will not be fully funded.
Judy C. Rhodes: That is our greatest concern right now. Giving non-renewal letters to teachers is not good. It's not good for the system, and even if the budget situation improves, that is not a good message to send. We were hopeful that after last year when the Legislature funded education first that they would continue to do that. Unfortunately it has not worked out that way. Last year, it made it so much easier on school districts with planning and dealing with revenue levels. The law requires that teachers be notified by April 15 if they are not going to be hired back and every year the appropriations process comes around mid-April and sometimes earlier. Usually we know about funding just before the deadline but this year we won't know until May 9. It looks like at this point that the education budget will go to conference.
The Star: Was there an extension of the deadline to notify teachers?
Rhodes: There was some consideration. The Senate passed a bill that would delay for a month on a one-time basis, but the House has not considered that bill. The House's position was that they had been in session since January and they were hopeful that they could make a decision.
There is a reason the deadline is that early, it's just good common sense in planning and letting people know. If you are a teacher, the earlier you know what your status is for the next year the earlier you know what to do to plan for your future. The same is true with the school districts. They have to turn in their budgets in June or July and you don't just plan a budget overnight. And the quicker they can know what budget level they are working with, especially when they are all facing reductions, then the better decisions that they can make.
The Star: Is there a competition between K-12 and higher education that is getting more intense as budgets get tighter?
Rhodes: We don't see it as a competition. Certainly all of us that utilize the funds from the state are all working for our cause. All state services have suffered greatly in the past few years. It's been a difficult time for the state, and budgets have been cut to the bone.
The universities have been cut, the community colleges have been cut and they have needs and they feel that with the K-12 salary initiative that's in place, certainly there is a staff morale issue. They want raises too. So certainly there is some natural animosity there. But when you look at the state as a whole, we must put K-12 as a priority if we want students to be successful in the community colleges and universities.
Mississippi is right now recording an increase in student performance that has never before been recorded. We are just now starting to make some progress. The state accountability system and the federal No Child Left Behind, there is no question that they are focusing on instruction.
The Star: Is there a way protect teacher jobs by cutting administrative costs in K-12 education?
Rhodes: People talk about efficiency. They say we have all of these administrators out there and administrative costs are running rampant. Well when you look at the facts, it's really not. In Mississippi, we do not have excess administrative costs. I'm not saying that every school district in the state is running as efficiently as it could, some could make changes, but I think you don't solve the efficiency problem by cutting people. There must be a method.
The Jackson school district had an efficiency study done and it recommended millions of dollars in savings. We had one done at the state department and I think it will give us a lot of good ideas for saving taxpayer dollars. I think a lot of districts would like to do this, and I think that is a good way to study efficiency.
The Star: How many employees are in the state department?
Rhodes: We have less state administrative people in the state department than we did prior to 1982. The state funds 189 state level positions to run the department, we have around 200 federally funded state department administrative people. When you look at the appropriation bill for the state department, it also appropriates for the 150 attendance officers that are all over the state. Also, we fund 260 teachers and administrators for the deaf and blind schools, and now we have the Mississippi School for the Arts and there are 30 or 40 positions down there.