State senate candidates talk budget, education

Published 12:01 am Saturday, July 23, 2011

ERIC SHELTON/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — At left, Senate District 37 candidate Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, addresses voters during a political forum Friday morning at the Natchez Coffee Company. At right, incumbent Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, talks. Sojourner will face off with Republican Stephen Oglesby of Franklin County in the Aug. 2 primary.

NATCHEZ — Area voters who gathered Friday morning for conversation, politics and coffee said all of it was good to the last drop.

Senate District 37 candidates Bob Dearing and Melanie Sojourner, both of Natchez, took turns answering a group of citizens’ questions at Natchez Coffee Company, and nearly 40 people came to ask questions and hear what the candidates had to say.

Candidate Stephen Oglesby, R-Meadville, did not attend the forum.

Email newsletter signup

Both Dearing, a Democrat, and Sojourner, a Republican, emphasized that they believe the state’s budget is in good shape.

“We ended up this year with a $285 million surplus,” said Dearing, who’s been a member of the senate since 1980. “I can remember when our rainy day fund was $0.”

The next budgeting process should begin near September, and while he doesn’t necessarily anticipate it being a tight budget year, Dearing said, if money has to be cut somewhere, he’s going to make sure it’s from something other than education.

“I don’t want to see education continue to be what they take money from,” he said. “People say, ‘universities can raise tuition, community colleges can raise tuition,’ but that’s just putting a tax on people who have kids in college.”

Sojourner works for the Adams County Extension Center, and she said the system took a cut. In response, she said, they got aggressive.

“We’ve got to live within our means,” she said. “Sometimes that means doing things differently. We’ve got to figure out a way to get smarter with funds.”

The same holds true for any endeavor or entity, she said.

One citizen voiced concerns regarding the Natchez-Adams County School Board and wondered whether the candidates supported moving to an elected board as opposed to an appointed.

“I’m supportive of the superintendent being appointed,” Sojourner said. “It’s a very specific job with specific skills and experience needed.”

Dearing said he, too, thinks the superintendent position should remain appointed.

However, he said, the board of supervisors said they’re going to send him a resolution asking for an elected school board.

“I’ve always made it a policy not to get involved in someone else’s politics,” he said. “I’ll support what (the supervisors) want to do.”

Sojourner said she’s looked to the Pike County school system for ideas about how to improve Adams County schools.

“(In Pike County) parental involvement is huge,” she said. “School is not just treated like a day care system.”

And creating a sort of competition between schools could be healthy, Sojourner said. For example, adding chances to win merit-based awards could improve the quality of education.

“People do that in businesses in the private sector,” she said. “Those who perform get higher raises.”

A second forum, featuring House of Representatives District 94 candidates James “Rickey” Gray and Robert Johnson, will be set up in the same manner and will take place from 8-9 a.m. July 29 at the coffee shop on Franklin Street.