October 28, 2020

Opinion: Math error – whether accidental or on purpose – reflects poorly on state education leaders

The mathematically challenged Mississippi Department of Education has done it once again.

It has created some heartburn by not accurately keeping up with its own numbers.

This time, it failed to provide state lawmakers, when they were trying to decide how big a raise to give Mississippi’s schoolteachers, an accurate figure of how much it would cost. Initially, MDE said a $1,000 pay raise would cost just more than $50 million. Then, it came back and said it miscalculated, that the state could actually increase the raise to $1,500, and it would only add another $8 million to the first estimate.

Lawmakers were relieved, since they were being lambasted by schoolteachers for allegedly being miserly. They approved the higher amount and went home, feeling that even though teachers might continue to grouse, the political damage would be minimal in this election year.

Now we learn MDE’s second projection was way off. The $58 million in the budget is not going to cover the $1,500 raise next year. It’s about $10 million to $15 million short because MDE failed to correctly count the number of teachers who are paid with state money.

We are all human, and we all make mistakes. But MDE seems to make more than its share.

It happened in 2015, when the department approved after-school grants for 45 school districts but failed to account for another 65 districts whose grants were being renewed. As a result of the $19 million error, all 110 districts got a lot less money than they expected.

A systemwide audit last year by then State Auditor Stacey Pickering found MDE to be one of the worst agencies at keeping its accounting straight.

As far as the shortfall on teacher raises, Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican leadership have told school districts and school teachers not to worry, pledging that the state will make up the deficit in a special appropriation when the Legislature convenes next January.

Still, the skeptics at the Capitol would not be blamed for wondering whether MDE’s undercount could have been intentional. There was no way, once the Legislature enacted the $1,500 raise, that it was going to roll it back. MDE would know that.

Careless or devious, take your pick. Neither reflect well on that agency.

This editorial was originally published in The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper.