Second Teachers' Union Rallies For Education Funding

Richard McComas strummed an acoustic guitar and crooned a reworked Elvis Presley song Tuesday to protest possible cuts to the state education budget.

"Well, now, since my money left me/I found a new place to dwell/It's down at the end of lonely street/At Haley Barbour hotel,'' McComas, an assistant special education teacher at Vicksburg High School, sang in the Capitol rotunda.

For the second time in as many weeks, teachers took personal days off to go to Jackson and lobby for full funding for education.

Critical spending decisions will be made in the next two weeks as lawmakers face a May 1 deadline to agree on all parts of the $3.7 billion state budget. The new state fiscal year starts July 1.

The House has passed a plan designed to cover a mandated teacher pay raise and fund K-12 schools at the same level as this year.

Education officials say a plan passed by the Senate and backed by Gov. Barbour would leave schools $161 million short. Barbour and Senate leaders have said millions more dollars should go to the schools, but neither has offered specific figures.

Last Thursday was the deadline for schools to extend contracts to teachers for the coming school year.

Exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, but officials said it was possible that thousands of teachers received pink slips because of uncertainty over state funding.

On the day of the contract deadline, about 90 teachers and parents converged on the Capitol for a rally hosted by the Mississippi Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union.

On Tuesday, a rally by the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers attracted about a dozen participants.

Maryann Graczyk, president of MAFT, said cuts will hurt students more than teachers. She said many teachers could find other jobs, but children could be "funneled into larger classes'' if school districts eliminate teaching positions.

Senate Education Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said teachers have been unnecessarily frightened by the debate about education funding.

"I think that's crying Chicken Little,'' Chaney said. "The sky's not falling.''

He said the Senate twice passed bills that would have delayed the teacher hiring deadline until May 15. The House never voted on those bills.

House Education Chairman Randy "Bubba'' Pierce, D-Leakesville, said the solution is not to delay contracts but to adopt an education budget.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)