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MDEQ touts coordinated effort, announces $65 million in new BP spending



MDEQ touts coordinated effort, announces $65 million in new BP spending

The theme for the 2022 Restoration Summit, held every November at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, was "purposeful restoration."

"We're not doing random acts of restoration," said Chris Wells, executive director at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

<p>In watching the state's years-long effort to spend the roughly $2 billion provided to it from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, stakeholders in the past <a href="https://mississippitoday.org/2020/11/10/several-years-into-bp-settlement-spending-the-bulk-of-mississippis-restoration-work-remains-undone/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">have criticized</a> Mississippi for not having a centralized game plan. Others questioned the state's commitment to one of it's purported top goals: improving water quality. </p>

On Thursday evening, Wells addressed the former criticism head on while the state announced $65 million in new project spending between the RESTORE Act funds and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)..

"A lot of these projects seem disjointed, they're not independent of each other, though," he said of the state's efforts thus far. "We do try to piece this puzzle together. We know what's good for water quality is good for oysters and vice versa, building marsh habitat and leveraging different projects against each other, being able to take a holistic approach to things."

One example MDEQ presented is the $50 million Hancock County Living Shoreline: Hoping to improve shipping infrastructure, the state dredged sediment from the channel at Port Bienville, and then used the sediment to rebuild 46 acres of new marsh to Heron Bay. MDEQ is planning to add more marsh to the area with dredged sediment from Bayou Caddy.

Similarly, MDEQ pointed to a group of projects in Bay St. Louis, a 20-acre non-harvestable reef the Nature Conservancy built with the long-term goal of repopulating local oysters. The state also built in the bay a 1,600- line of breakwaters comprised of concrete rings, which give oysters a place to grow and helps reduce erosion.

The state, which has currently obligated $809.8 million of the $2 billion it's set to , will continue to receive funds from the BP settlement until 2031.

A lot of the state's environmental projects, such as rebuilding marsh and improving water quality, are long-term efforts that have taken longer to receive funds, while many of the state's completed projects so far — such as an in Gulfport and a science center in Pearlington — are aimed at economic restoration.

<p>In the last year, according to the state's <a href="http://www.msrestoreteam.com/ProjectStoryMap/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">project tracker</a>, the project seeing the most money in spending has been improving the runway at the Trent Lott International Airport in Moss Point, with $4.2 million in expenditures from 2021 to 2022. Other projects that saw large amounts of spending in the last year include:</p>

  • Infrastructure improvements at Port Bienville: $3.7 million

  • Constructing living shorelines and reefs: $2.5 million

  • Water quality improvement through upgrading storm water and wastewater : $2 million

  • Using dredged materials to restore marsh: $1.3 million

  • New project spending announced Thursday between the RESTORE Act funds and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF):

    RESTORE projects (Direct component, Bucket 1):

  • Lowery Island Restoration ($4.4 million) — create a marina and mixed-use district.

  • Pearl River Community College Hancock Aviation Aerospace Workforce Academy ($2.09 million) — purchase equipment to the establishment of PRCC Aerospace Workforce Academy.

  • The Kiln Utility District and Fire District Water and Sewer Expansion Project ($3 million) — expand water and sewer to support increased .

  • Highway 609 Washington Street Gateway Phase II ($5.5 million) — construct pedestrian friendly features including sidewalks, crosswalks, and landscaped median under Phase II from Old Fort Bayou to Highway 90.

  • Trent Lott International Airport North Apron Expansion ($2.4 million) — expand the north apron of the Trent Lott International Airport.

  • Magnificent Mile: I-10 Highwqy 63 Corridor Improvement ($5.5 million) — investment in road infrastructure to alleviate traffic congestion and encourage development.

  • Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport Secondary Runway Extension ($2.2 million) — will expand the secondary runway.

  • Port Bienville Railroad Intermodal Expansion ($3.3 million) — construction of a 7-track classification yard and the addition of a truck-to-rail intermodal facility expansion.

  • RESTORE projects (Spill impact component, Bucket 3):

  • Jones Park Expansion Parking Areas ($1.65 million) — expand parking areas at Jones Park.

  • Walter Anderson of Art Creative Complex ($1.2 million) — provide funding for facility construction and new program implementation.

  • Mississippi Coast Community College Workforce Training ($4.95 million) — development of curricula and workforce development program designed to meet job market needs.

  • Health Professions for our Community (HEALP): Health Professions Center of Excellence ($6.6 million) — project will focus on developing a Health Professionals Center of Excellence.

  • Marina at Front Beach ($5.5 million) — funding to convert derelict shrimp processing plant to marina and event center.

  • Institute of Marine Mammal Studies Outreach and Ecotourism ($875,000) — enhance and expand ecotourism around Gulf Coast marine resources.

  • St. Stanislaus and Ocean Springs Environmental Education ($566,500) — enhance environmental science programs related to marine ecosystem education.

  • NFWF:

  • Wolf River headwaters acquisition ($15,103,000) — acquire approximately 14,000 acres along the Wolf River south of Highway 53 to help improve water quality and quantity.

  • Gulf Islands National Seashore ($1,578,000) — continue invasive species removal and control work out on the Gulf Islands National Seashore with the National Park Service.

  • This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

    Mississippi Today

    Podcast: Inside the Medicaid expansion debate at the Capitol



    's Adam Ganucheau, Sophia Paffenroth, Geoff Pender, Bobby Harrison and Taylor Vance detail the first earnest debate about expansion at the Mississippi Capitol. They discuss what various proposals would do, who is supporting them, who is opposing them, and what might be on the horizon as the debate heats up.

    This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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    Mississippi Today

    The new FAFSA was supposed to be easier to use. Technical glitches have made it anything but.



    Tayler Monts wasted no time filling out her financial aid form for college. The senior at KIPP High School in Camden, New Jersey, plans to be the first person in her to pursue a higher education. She got started on the latest Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) shortly after its Dec. 30 online debut. 

    But she was confused by a question on the form, phrased as a double negative, she said. “I couldn't go back in to fix it, even though on the website it says that I should theoretically be able to edit it.” She's tried calling the Federal Student Aid hotline for to no avail. “The lines are busy, so I've never gotten through.”

    The new and shorter FAFSA was supposed to be easier to use. In fact, nearly 4 million people have submitted the 2024-'25 form since it became available, according to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “And many are getting through those forms in record time,” he said Feb. 12 during a press call. For others, the opposite is true. Technical issues have prevented families from revising, completing or submitting the application. whose parents lack Social Security numbers are a key group of applicants unable to finish the form because of a system glitch. 

    A $1.8 billion error in the formula that specifies how much aid students get also caused confusion because it didn't account for inflation. This led to some students who qualify for financial assistance reportedly being told they did not. The Department of Education has since fixed that problem, but other hiccups remain, leading to fears that colleges won't be able to process families' financial data until shortly before the May 1 deadline students generally have to commit to a college. The snafus could see students choosing colleges without knowing the financial assistance they might receive or putting off college because they refuse to take that risk or have lost patience with the process entirely, experts contend.

    “It's a huge problem,” said Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president of the Education Trust, which advocates for students, especially those of color or with low incomes, to achieve academic excellence. “It's going to create equity issues, especially for those students who are the most dependent on financial aid, and we know that low-income students and students of color depend more on financial aid to finance their college education. If you don't know before you have to make a deposit to an institution if you're going to have enough aid to go, why would you do that? I'm concerned that it's going to significantly impact the college-going decisions that students are making.”


    Each year, roughly 17 million students use the FAFSA — most of whom are young women. During the 2021-'22 cycle, just over 11 million women students applied for aid using the form, with about 6.5 million . Del Pilar fears that vulnerable students might decide to take a year off from college because of FAFSA difficulties, noting that many who paused their higher education when the COVID-19 pandemic began never returned. He doesn't want to see a repeat of that trend.

    Del Pilar, also a former financial aid counselor at Loyola Marymount University, said colleges can't even begin putting a student's financial aid award letter together until they receive the applicant's financial data from the federal government. Colleges, he added, are desperately waiting to get that information, as are scholarship organizations such as Native Forward Scholars Fund.

    “One of the main documents we use to verify [student] need is the FAFSA form,” said Angelique Albert, CEO of Native Forward, which provides scholarships to Native American students. “That will show any awards that they've gotten from the federal government. It will show the expected family contributions, and then it will show what is left for them to be able to go to college. So what is their unmet need to go to that particular school — we fund based on that document.”

    Errors on the FAFSA or processing delays may restrict the scale of the scholarship a student receives from Native Forward, Albert said. There's also the matter of the tremendous mental health strain put on students whose futures are often riding on these financial aid outcomes.


    These students “feel a lot of anxiety,” explained Destiny Bingham, a counselor at KIPP High School in Camden with a caseload of 75 students applying for college, including Monts. “‘What's going to happen with my future?'” Bingham said they ask.And I have those concerns, too, because I've been working with these students for four years now. We've been having these conversations for a long time, and it just looks like the students who are most in need of these resources, who are the reason that FAFSA exists, are unable to benefit from it.”

    Monts, who wants to study computer engineering and enroll in a technical college, said she's contemplating attending two schools. One is better than the other, she said, but she won't be able to make a decision until the colleges present her with financial aid award letters based on her FAFSA.

    “I want to go to the better school, but the better school is more expensive,” Monts said. “Not knowing how much FAFSA is willing to give me kind of affects that because I don't want to be in debt for the rest of my life.”

    In response to the mounting criticisms about the FAFSA rollout, Department of Education officials announced both this and last that it is taking steps to ensure colleges obtain and process student financial data as soon as possible. Those steps include the launch of the FAFSA College Support Strategy whereby the agency is deploying federal personnel to support high-needs institutions such as tribal colleges and historically Black colleges and universities.


    “We're setting up a concierge service,” Cardona said Monday. “We're allocating $50 million in funding for technical assistance and support, and we're releasing tools to help institutions by February 16. We will be releasing test versions of student so that every college can make sure their systems are ready.”

    To speed up the financial aid application process, the Department of Education announced Feb. 13 that an IRS data exchange will allow it to obtain families' income information from tax records. This will eliminate the need for families to hand over sensitive documentation that requires verification, and the move may especially benefit applicants with undocumented immigrant parents who don't have Social Security numbers or want to avoid submitting information that would reveal their immigration status. Annually, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $12 billion in taxes

    Despite steps to make the FAFSA process “less cumbersome for families,” as Cardona said, it is unclear when other wrinkles in the rollout of the new form will be ironed out. A department spokesperson on Feb. 12 said that the agency did not receive the funding it needs from Congress to hire additional customer service personnel to walk students and their families through FAFSA snags. Additionally, a spokesperson said the department could not pinpoint when applicants whose parents don't have Social Security numbers will be able to complete the document. The official did confirm with The 19th that students in that predicament may fill out a paper FAFSA 

    “Our hope is to make the online form available to all families, including parents without Social Security numbers, in the coming weeks,” the official said. “Although the paper form is an option for families now, waiting for the online form is another alternative that could be easier for many families.”

    The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for the school year from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

    Since paper applications are reportedly processed after their digital counterparts, some experts say that completing the FAFSA virtually is still the best option. But simply connecting to the internet is often a for Native Forward scholars, Albert said. Many in rural communities without broadband access, so the organization makes special arrangements for them to complete their financial aid forms online.

    “They're not even able to do it from their phone because they don't have that access,” Albert said. “We have the student emergency fund, and from that fund, we've paid for scholars to have gas money to travel into cities so that they could have access to the internet. That is a problem in some of our communities. I think that's something that we need to address on a broader scale.”

    Shavar Jeffries, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, which trains educators to teach in its national network of public charter schools, said that students and their families don't have a moment to lose when it to the FAFSA, the newest version of which came out months later than standard. Typically, the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year is available Oct. 1. Given the delays and the rollout difficulties, Jeffries would like the government to get applicants the information they need promptly. Since many KIPP students are from economically disadvantaged communities and among the first members of their family to go to college, he doesn't want them to face additional barriers.

    “Every day that there is a delay, it definitely increases the risk that some number of young people who can attend and graduate from college won't be able to do so,” he said.

    On Feb. 12, education leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as 106 of their colleagues, urged Cardona to address the issues with the new FAFSA in a letter led by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott. Sanders chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and Scott is a ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The lawmakers asked the Education Department to clarify how it will inform the public of further delays in FAFSA processing and to provide clear timelines about its plans so families can make the best decisions about higher education for their children.


    The updates to the FAFSA are expected to help an additional 610,000 students qualify for a federal Pell grant, and another 1.5 million students qualify for the maximum Pell award, the lawmakers noted. But they also pointed out that the problems with the 2024-'25 FAFSA rollout stem largely from the fact that the Department of Education didn't receive sufficient funding to release a new form after Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020 to ease the process for millions of applicants.

    “The federal government wanted to make the FAFSA form more simple because it can be a bit convoluted at times — and to make it easier for families to fill out and to make it easier for higher education institutions to provide accurate, clear information to families about financial aid awards,” Jeffries said. “That was very well intended. Unfortunately, the execution of those intentions hasn't been ideal.”

    This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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    Mississippi Today

    Education groups urge lawmakers to keep objective formula in place for school funding



    Several high-powered Mississippi public education groups sent a joint letter to lawmakers this week stressing that any rewrite of the formula providing funds to local schools should be based on objective criteria.

    The House leadership has proposed a completely new structure that would it to legislators to annually determine the base student cost. Under the current funding formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which the Senate is working to tweak but preserve, the base student cost is determined by an objective formula — not by politicians. The base student cost multiplied by enrollment equals the amount of money that school districts are supposed to , though more affluent districts receive less funding than do poorer districts.

    READ MOREHouse leaders want lawmakers, not an objective formula, to determine ‘full funding' for public schools

    The Feb. 20 letter, addressed to House Speaker Jason White, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the House and Senate education chairmen, and every lawmaker, was sent by:

    • The Mississippi Association of Educators.
    • The Mississippi Association of School Administrators.
    • The Mississippi Professional Educators.
    • The Mississippi Association of School Administrators.
    • The Parents' Campaign.

    “We believe that a guiding principle in the of such (school funding formula) should be an understanding that the purpose … is to reflect the true cost of educating Mississippi to a proficient level in core academic subjects and otherwise preparing them for in college and career,” the letter reads.

    To achieve those goals, the letter continues, “essential components” of a formula should include “a base student cost determined by an objective formula. The base cost represents the cost to bring a typical student to academic proficiency as defined by state academic standards.” The formula also should include “an inflation factor to account for increased operational costs to be applied in any year in which there is not a full recalculation of the formula.”


    The Senate Education Committee has passed legislation to make some changes to MAEP, but the Senate bill maintains the objective funding formula and preserves a growth factor, though at a level lower than the current level. Whether a compromise between the two chambers on the funding formula can be achieved could be one of the most contentious issues of the 2024 .

    READ MORE: Senate committee passes bill to tweak but preserve MAEP, the public school funding formula

    The letter from the education groups went on to say that a rewrite also should include additional funding for students living in poverty, for special education students, for gifted students and for students learning English as a second language. The letter also advocates for more funds for career and technical education and to address teacher shortages in both geographic and in subject areas.

    The letter advocated for “an equity provision” providing more state funding in poor districts and less state funding in more affluent districts.


    The bill that the Senate Education Committee passed this week would require more affluent districts to contribute more toward the base student cost, or toward the cost of providing an “adequate” education. The Senate bill would not make any adjustments to the amount of money going to poorer districts. But Senate say they hope to fully fund the formula, pumping an additional $215 million into the program providing more assistance to poorer districts, as it would all districts.

    The House plan provides more money for various groups of students who might take more money to educate, such as poor students, special education students and English learners.

    MAEP has been fully funded only twice since its implementation in 1997 — the last time in 2007.

    READ MORECould this be the year political games end and MAEP is funded and fixed?


    This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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