NEWS601

CLINTON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's superintendent of schools said Thursday that the state will give local districts enough money this summer to ensure they don't have to reach into their own pockets to cover a shortfall in teacher pay raise funding.

State Superintendent Carey Wright said after a state Board of Education meeting in Clinton that the department is still calculating the amount of the shortfall caused by the department's ignorance of how teachers were coded in its own computer system. Department officials originally said they thought the deficit was between $10 million and $15 million, but Wright said she now doesn't want to make an estimate until a fuller report is compiled later this month.

Wright continues to reassure that all teachers and assistant teachers will get a $1,500 raise beginning July 1. The Legislature mandated that pay increase in law, so districts must pay it regardless of state funding.

"Every teacher and every teacher's assistant is going to get their well-deserved pay raise," she told board members.

The problem stems from the department's count of how many teachers were eligible, as documented in a March 27 letter counting 31,157 teachers. Officials say that was a count of teachers in its computer system classified as being paid only with funds from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula that divides state aid among school districts.

The idea was to omit teachers paid with federal funds, with federal money covering their raises. But Wright said the department didn't know that its computer system places some teachers paid all or in part with state money into classifications that the department thought included only teachers paid completely with federal money.

Because the count was short, lawmakers allotted only $58 million to pay the raises. The department usually sends state aid to local school districts in two checks a year. Wright said that, if necessary, the department won't split the $58 million in pay raise funds equally, but will send a larger share this summer. She's counting on assurances from Republican leaders that lawmakers will cover the shortfall in January when the next regular session starts.

"So there is sufficient money to cover the teacher pay raises until the legislature meets," Wright said. "And we're very comfortable with that."

Because it's an election year, there's no guarantee of who will hold top posts in January. Some people have pushed for a special session to solve the problem now, with the pressure of the November general election looming over incumbents. Gov. Phil Bryant and others have rejected that move as a waste of money.

Wright has said the episode points to the continuing need to overhaul the department's data system, called the Mississippi Student Information System, dismissing criticism that the department is incompetent.

"Yes, MDE can count," she said. "But however, comma, it takes having accurate information in our data system in order to be able to produce an accurate number on the front end."

Wright said Thursday that staffers would present a data overhaul plan in June. Lawmakers allotted $500,000 for the department to begin work starting in July, but Wright said that's not enough.

"I'm sure it's going to cost several million dollars," she said. "But if that's what we need to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again, then we've got to get that done."

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