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From Staff Reports
The future of the Greene County Board of Supervisors’ tuition assistance program doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy, but there are likely some big changes on the horizon.
Supervisors have set aside money to assist students enrolled in Jones College since 2013. Recently, however, board members have talked openly about expanding the program to offer assistance to county residents who choose to attend other schools, instead of just JCJC. At the same time, a riff has developed over the past year between Jones officials and some county supervisors. That riff was on display on Monday when Jones College President Dr. Jesse Smith and several other Jones officials attended the board’s regular August meeting.
Jennifer Griffith, the Dean of Workforce College at Jones presented a breakdown of the county expenditures for the program since its inception and provided a few options for supervisors to consider moving forward. Griffith explained that the program operated with a negative balance for the first four years of the program, meaning more scholarship funding was awarded during that time frame than supervisors had allocated. For instance, in 2014, supervisors allocated millage that generated just under $49,000 for the program, while the total value of the tuition assistance for that school year was nearly $120,000. Supervisors increased the millage in 2015, and the overall funding has exceeded the value of the tuition assistance during each year since that point.
The amount of money required to fund the Jones tuition assistance fluctuates each year based on the number of students enrolling and the number of students able to get other types of assistance, such as federal PELL grants.
The total funding from supervisors has also fluctuated, based on the amount of millage supervisors assign to the program and the county’s assessed valuation, which determines the value of each mill in terms of tax revenue. The bottom line is that through the first seven years of the program, 548 Greene County students have participated in the program, with total assistance at $402,110. During that time, millage for the program has generated just over a half million dollars, creating a balance of $98,676 already in the Jones College coffers heading into the 2019-2020 school year.
She told supervisors they could opt to cover non-tuition school fees, previously not covered through the program, for the next two years or utilize the balance to cover the anticipated growth in enrollment in the program, due to changes in admission requirements and the number of programs being offered to students.
Griffith told supervisors Jones was reducing the admission requirements slightly beginning this year to provide more opportunities for students looking to enter the school’s career and technical programs as part of the school’s agreement with the Greene County School District for dual enrollment. She said she anticipates that move will increase the number of students taking advantage of the tuition assistance program.
She also told supervisors about the addition of four new programs set to be offered at the Greene County campus in the near future. Those include Health, Law and Public Safety; Electrical Technology; Commercial Truck Driving and Long-Term Health Care Assistant. The Health, Law and Public Safety program has already gotten approval from state education officials and the other programs are expected to be approved in the coming months as well.
After Griffith’s presentation, Dist. 2 Supervisor Morris Hill told Jones officials he and other supervisors wanted to expand the program to accommodate county students who wish to enroll in other colleges. He said schools like Pearl River Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College are often more convenient or more in-line with the chosen career path of some of the students in his district.
Dist. 1 Supervisor G.L. Dearman agreed with Hill that he and other board members would like to see the program expanded to cover other schools, but that he had some serious concerns with the way Jones had handled the program in its current form.
“The main issue I have is when we set this program up we had a set of guidelines we gave Jones to go by and we went back and even extended the program to people that had already graduated (high school) and wanted to go through the welding and pipe-fitting programs,” Dearman said, addressing his comments to Dr. Smith. “Your new regulations to get in are totally opposite of what our goal was when we started providing this service. And, I am hearing right now that this summer y’all were not paying for these kids’ summer school. Why are you not paying for it when we have $100,000 sitting up there.”
Smith responded with a brief history of the program and said Jones extended the program to summer school at the request of the supervisors and later changed that at the request of Dearman.
“Mr. Dearman came to the college and said we are in a deficit and based upon his recommendation we rescinded (the summer portion of the program,” Dr. Smith said. “We didn’t send a bill down here and say y’all need to pay us this amount. We said we knew we were in this for the long term so we just tightened things up a bit and from that day forward these criteria have been in place.”
“That all transpired back in the 2015-2016 school year. There has been no arbitrary capricious move on our part to exclude anyone.”
Smith went on to say that Jones officials knew that new programs were coming on line and Jones was holding the surplus, not because school officials were trying to keep the money, but instead as part of a long-term plan for expanding the program in partnership with the supervisors.
“When we seemed to lose complete control is when you took (administrative) control away from us here (at the local center) and moved it to Jones,” Dearman added. “It is just like right now I am getting complaints about the summer program and why we didn’t pay for it.”
“It is Greene County’s money, Dr. Smith.”
Smith responded to Dearman by saying county funds have not been used for summer tuition assistance since 2016.
“You approved this, personally. I talked to you in my office and you were the very one that said we need to exclude the summer program because (of a funding deficit),” Smith said. “We absolutely did exactly what you said to do at that time.”
“So for you to come in here and say that we did something that went against the board of supervisors is an incredulous point and is completely false. We did not make the decision. You made the decision.”
Dearman said that he made that decision back in 2015 when the program was underfunded and thought the summer tuition assistance would be restarted when the funding caught up and that he had asked several times, without success, for the two entities to get together to work through his concerns.
“We have been open to (discussing this) over and over and gentlemen, you know this,” Smith replied. “You know very well where we stand.”
Hill said he had never had a problem communicating with Dr. Smith or other officials at Jones, but added that he believed policy should be approved by the entire board, not just an individual board member.
“You make a very good point,” Smith said. “We are following the policy that we agreed upon.”
Smith added that there is a surplus of funding for the program at this time and that Jones had laid out a plan for the board to consider. He said Jones will continue to be active in Greene County and continue to serve local students.
“If somebody has gotten aggravated because of anything we are doing then look, I am sorry,” Smith added. “What we are trying to do is serve and do what you have asked us to do from the beginning. There is no wavering in our dedication.”
In the end, the two sides agreed to reconvene at a date in the near future to hash out differences, either in Greene County or on the Ellisville campus. The Herald was assured that the time and place of that meeting would be made public when finalized.