Education, roads, Medicaid expansion discussed at forum
By Sarah Cook
The Natchez Democrat
NATCHEZ — From Common Core standards in the classroom to rural roadway repairs and Medicaid expansion, area legislators addressed a wide range of issues to an attentive audience of 69 residents at the Natchez Grand Hotel Monday morning.
Sponsored by the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, the breakfast served as an open forum for representatives to shed light on what’s in store for the upcoming legislative session — and for residents to submit questions that deserve answers.
When asked about funding in the education sector, Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, stressed maintaining accountability and transparency for administrative costs.
“Yes, there are absolutely areas of education that need more money, but there are also areas of education where we definitely need to tighten our belts and do a better job,” she said.
An advocate for states’ rights, Sojourner said giving local government the biggest voice in education funding is crucial for enhancing the quality of state school systems.
In regards to the common core program — a multi-state initiative designed to ensure a single set of educational standards across the country — Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said the problem doesn’t reside in the program’s shortcomings, but rather in not taking advantage of progressive teaching strategies.
“Our problem isn’t that we’re spending too much on administration. Our problem is that we have not taken advantage of new systems that we can put in place that have innovative ways to teach,” he said.
Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, said on the state level, a large amount of money has been spent on common core standards and discontinuing the program would “be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
“Yes, we need to do something different, but the department of education needs to be consulted first,” Butler said.
Johnson also stressed the need to hold parents, as well as administrators, accountable for education needs. Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, echoed this point.
“It’s not just about the funding,” Mims said. “We also have to have other levels of responsibility — the students, parents, administrators, teachers.”
Addressing state bridges and roadways, Johnson, who serves as chairperson of the transportation committee, said Southwest Mississippi has an urgent need for road repairs.
With a current working budget of $120 million — and expectations for growth — Johnson forecasted a productive session for transportation improvements.
“A lot of our bridges are in desperate need of repair, or are impassable,” he said.
In terms of Mississippi’s public health, Mims said a sound fiscal budget is anticipated for this legislative session. Residents can also expect upgrades in rural hospitals, which are in dire need of funding, said Mims, who plans to request a $10 million bill to help meet new market demands as healthcare shifts.
“It really is an economic development issue in my mind,” he said. “We need to take care of our patients and make sure our hospitals are open.”
And while Johnson, Butler and Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, said they support Medicaid expansion and said the program isn’t being used to its full potential, Mims opposes Medicaid expansion. He said he doesn’t expect the topic to arise during this session.
On a more local level, all representatives — excluding Sojourner — said they would vote yes for a $6 million bond bill for the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center, which currently is in disrepair.
“I am a supporter of the arts and restoration of historic buildings, but I also believe that a lot of that lies in the hands of the private sector,” said Sojourner, adding that she believes infrastructure problems take priority when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars.
All representatives said initiatives to decrease texting and driving, along with enhancing tourism throughout the state, are priorities for this session.
Chamber of commerce representatives Stephanie Hutchins and Lacy Jester, and Natchez Mayor Butch Brown, said the breakfast provided an enlightening forum for city and county residents.
“I think this is one of the better (forums) we’ve had,” said Brown, noting that difference in opinion contributed to a quality debate. “This is the kind of forum where (representatives) are able to sit together, face the crowd, and be honest with themselves and the voting public.”