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MDE presents legislative priorities to...

MDE presents legislative priorities to Senate Education Committee

By: Jeremy Pittari - February 9, 2024

From left are Dr. Felicia Gavin, MDE's Chief of Operations, Legislative Liaison Holly Spivey, incoming State Superintendent Dr. Lance Evans, MDE Chief Accountability Officer Dr. Paula Vanderford and Interim State Superintendent Dr. Raymond Morgigno as they address the Senate Education Committee Thursday morning. Photo Jeremy Pittari | Magnolia Tribune

  • Funding MAEP and providing avenues to increase workforce participation were two main priorities expressed to Senators this week by the Mississippi Department of Education.

During Thursday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, administrators from the Mississippi Department of Education submitted a request of nearly $3 billion to be funded under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).

In the current fiscal year, MAEP was funded at $2.4 billion, and there was another $100 million provided by the Legislature for district expenses with the exclusion being pay raises to top administrators such as principals and superintendents. 

“That $100 million, that was a God send to districts to be able to do things as some of the ESSER funds were leaving, so thank you for stepping up. We appreciate what you guys have done for education,” Interim State Superintendent Dr. Ray Morgigno added.

Morgigno is serving in that role until July 2024 when Dr. Lance Evans is slated to take over the reins as the next State Superintendent, pending Senate confirmation.

READ MORE: Dr. Lance Evans named Mississippi State Superintendent

MDE acts as the support and regulatory body for the states’s education system and is responsible for distributing and monitoring the spending of $1.5 billion in federal funds as well as the appropriated state funds.

Morgigno said that of the total funding received, MDE only uses about 0.69 percent to pay its expenses, including a staff of 337. He said that figure does not include the 122 school attendance officers.

Funding Request and Breakdown

Dr. Felicia Gavin, MDE’s Chief of Operations, submitted a total budget of $2.9 billion to committee members to “fully fund” education in the state for the next fiscal year based on MAEP. 

The funding request would include the MAEP base cost of $2.3 billion, plus $663,808,206 for add-on programs and $13,413,109 in other programs. “Other programs” includes the extended school year, non-public textbooks, bus driver training, university based special needs transportation, the dyslexia scholarship program, and more. 

Interim State Superintendent Morgigno showed a slide that further described the legislative fiscal priorities for FY 2025. MDE is seeking:

  • $1.2 million for licensure call center operations
  • $3.5 million for MSIS 2.0 support
  • $10.9 million for the state’s assessment system
  • $25 million to expand the early childhood education programs
  • $3 million for the Mississippi Community Oriented Policing Services, otherwise known as school resource officers.

The remainder of the funding would be distributed to the MECCA system maintenance, accreditation review teams, office of test security, school improvement for schools at risk, professional development program expansion, and superintendent and principal academies.

In his request, Morgigno asked for 14 more attendance officers. He is seeking to move the officers under the purview of their respective school districts to help build connections within the communities they serve. To pay for the additional attendance officers, Morgigno asked for an additional $2.9 million, putting the total request in that category to $9.3 million. If approved, that money would provide a 25 percent salary bump for existing attendance officers and cover the requested 14 additional officers on the roster. 

New Database System

During the presentation, Morgigno touched on MSIS 2.0, the incoming system slated to replace the aging database system that was dinged in a recent PEER report for not recording the achievements of 40 percent of the students in Head Start since 2013. 

READ MORE: Legislative review of Early Learning Collaboratives to lead to changes in data collection, curriculum

When reached for comment during previous coverage of the PEER report, MDE provided Magnolia Tribune with a statement saying that the system was not collecting that data because Head Start students were not considered part of the public school system, so identification information was not assigned to those students. MSIS 2.0 is to rectify that problem when it goes online. Morgigno added training in the use of the new system is underway. 

When Senator Brice Wiggins (R) asked for more information about MSIS 2.0 later in the meeting, Morgigno said one of the problems with the old system was that reports were only sent in periodically and had to be done manually. The new system will have the capability to report information automatically on a daily basis.

Senate Education Chair Senator Dennis DeBar (R) pressed Morgigno for more information, asking why the Legislature had been providing an extra $9 million for the last two to three years to upgrade the system to 2.0 so Head Start students could be tracked, and why MDE is now asking for additional funds for that purpose.

“Now you’re asking for another $3.5 million, what’s the $3.5 million for?” DeBar asked.

Morgigno responded that the extra funding will be used for the previously mentioned training, paying contractors working on the system and will cover travel for the training sessions. He added that the new system will meet the department’s needs now and in the future because it is upgradable. 

Impact of Additional Funding

Senator DeBar also asked how the extra federal money above and beyond the ESSR funding that is typically received, some from pandemic recovery allotments, assisted in the state’s recent education achievements.

“So despite the underfunding, I guess you could say the federal money received kinda supplemented the districts and that allowed them to achieve the things that they’ve done and so the money actually can solve some problems if you put your money where your mouth is at, is that correct?” DeBar asked.

Morgigno agreed that the extra funding played a key role in the recent successes seen across the state in several areas. He noted the only area where the state did not see gains, but rather saw deficiencies, was in sixth grade math. 

“Most of you guys grew up in Mississippi, as I imagine most of us in this room did, and for all our life we heard Mississippi was last in education. And that is just no longer the case. Mississippi is currently ranked 35th in our country. And obviously it’s not good enough, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Morgigno described earlier in the meeting.

Gains were also seen in third grade reading scores and the graduation rate, rising from 75.5 percent in 2013 to 89.4 percent in 2023. That graduation rate was the highest in the history of the state and above the national average. 

The interim state superintendent also thanked the Legislature for the $20 million investment made in Pre-K last year to increase the number of 4-year-olds in the state attending publicly funded Pre-K programs from 38 percent to 58 percent. Morgigno said the investment makes an impact on the children’s performance in early grades. During his previous role as a principal, Morgigno noticed Kindergarten teachers would “pretty much fight” for the students who attended a Pre-K program.

“Because they knew how to get along, how to sometimes raise their hand, (teachers) knew just the behavior piece was so much easier on them,” Morgigno added. 

Preparing Students for the Workforce Needs

With the passage of two pieces of legislation that will result in large economic development projects to the state, Senator DeBar wanted to know what school districts are doing to ensure the next generations will be ready to fill the growing workforce need. Those projects include a slated $10 billion corporate investment in the construction of an Amazon Web Services facility and a $2 billion electric battery production facility. 

Morgigno said that would involve working with companies to see what their needs are and what kind of partnerships can be formed. For instance, Nissan offers internships for seniors from the Jackson Public School District. But so far, those discussions have shown the biggest need is not on the education system, but in learning common sense things. 

“A lot of them say, ‘Ray we can train them, we can teach them. But we need people that are going to show up to work everyday, that are going to have a good attitude, that are going to look you in the eye when talking to you, that are going to be a part of a team and that can work as part of team.’ And that’s some of the old common sense stuff, a work ethic, dependability. That’s really what they’re looking for,” Morgigno elaborated. 

Earlier in the presentation, Morgigno covered the ACT WorkKeys as a route for those not wanting to attend college, saying it is way to increase the workforce. Morgigno told the committee currently $1 million is allocated annually by the state to reimburse school districts for the expense to provide that test. All of funding for the test is used each year. Students who score silver or better total about 65.8 percent of the total students who take the test currently, which was an increase from previous years. Morgigno said that is important because Nissan is one of several employers in the state which hires students who score a silver or better and earn a diploma.

If the state decided to provide that test to every high school during a student’s junior year it would only cost another $300,000 to $400,000.

Senator Nicole Boyd (R) wanted to know if efforts were being made to ensure the state has enough math and reading coaches to help get the state to the level where more than 50 percent of students are scoring proficient and advanced in those subject areas. 

Morgigno said districts are having trouble getting math teachers as it is, so he’s reluctant to steal math teachers from districts to make them coaches. Currently, the focus is on universities providing those needed personnel.

Senator Scott Delano (R) requested more computer science programs as part of the curriculum, even if it has to be mixed with other subjects such as math. Additionally, there is a computer science need for students in advanced placement courses. 

“Because every company that we’ve talked to that is coming into the state, just like (Amazon Web Services), has acknowledged they must have those minimum skills necessary to function in the workplace just like you had talked about before,” Delano described.

Increasing Standards

In terms of the accountability model, soon the state will have to make changes.

MDE Chief Accountability Officer Dr. Paula Vanderford said the focus of the accountably system is to ensure the minimum standards of public schools is met, the public is informed on each district’s performance, and parents are informed of their child’s performance. It’s also important to ensure the student is making a year’s worth of progress.

Now that the state has reached a point where 65 percent of the schools and/or districts are rated a B or higher, she said it’s time to discuss resetting or increasing the standards.

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that MDE uses about 69 percent to pay its expenses. That number has been changed to 0.69 percent. It also incorrectly listed the total amount for add-on programs and other programs as $663,808 and $13,413 respectively. Both figures have been corrected to $663,808,206 and $13,413,109.
About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics. Email Jeremy: jeremy@magnoliatribune.com