Education chief: Cuts could cripple some districts

Published 11:25 pm Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mississippi Education Superintendent Hank Bounds says more than 20 school districts won’t be able to absorb the budget cuts Gov. Haley Barbour is making for K-12 public education.

Those districts rely heavily on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding formula that pays for elementary and secondary schools.

When Barbour made 2 percent budget reductions in November, MAEP was spared. But the governor said late Wednesday that MAEP is being cut nearly 3.5 percent during a second round of budget reductions to state agencies — slightly less than the 3.8 percent he mentioned as a possibility during a Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio interview just hours earlier.

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“If it’s 3.8 percent, I can tell you that more than 20 school districts will not have enough money in their fund balance accounts to cover the cuts,” Bounds said Wednesday.

After the cuts were announced, Bounds said in a written statement that the Department of Education is evaluating how each of the 152 districts will be affected and will let local school officials know later this week.

The governor is cutting $87.8 million from elementary and secondary education; $76.6 million of that is from MAEP.

Bounds said some districts may survive the reduced funding by shutting down sports programs or eliminating cafeteria, maintenance and school bus driving jobs. But more than 20 districts “can cut everything possible … and they still won’t make it.”

Barbour has said Mississippi will see a revenue shortfall between $175 million and $310 million before the fiscal year ends June 30.

During his State of the State address, Barbour said MAEP wasn’t his most immediate concern, “especially with the school districts’ rainy day funds flush with $517 million.”

Bounds said some of those school districts, mostly those with a strong tax base, can tap into those funds to help them get through the budget crunch.

Seventy-five percent of a district’s budget goes to pay teacher salaries, he said. The rest is used for electricity, fuel and other needs.

“You can’t turn off the lights. You can’t stop running the buses. You can’t stop feeding the kids,” Bounds said. “It may be difficult for districts to borrow money.”

Senate Education Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, said he was meeting with school superintendents and other education officials to determine if there other resources available to districts.

“We’re looking in other nook and cranny we can,” Carmichael said.

The national recession is affecting most states, but at least one bordering Mississippi is trying to maintain funding for a program similar to MAEP.

Funding for Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, which provides over $2 billion directly to school districts, won’t be cut in the next budget, said Rachel Woods, the agency’s communications director.

Gov. Phil Bredesen has said the funding for the program will be maintained at the previous year’s level, Woods said.

“He knows those dollars are critical. Local districts are going to make their own cuts and cutting state dollars on top of that will impact students,” Woods said.

BEP is the formula used to determine how much money districts receive per child. Districts use the money for textbooks, salaries and fuel costs.

However, the agency is considering other cuts to programs that include technology and health, she said.

Public education in Alabama was facing a 12.5 percent shortfall before officials borrowed $437 million from a state rainy day fund, Department of Education spokesman Michael Sibley said.

Still facing a 9 percent budget decrease, public education officials are “looking into ways we can reduce the budget without cutting into core programs that proven instrumental in the program that our students have been making.”

Sibley said officials will likely cut back on professional development training for teachers and travel. He said no teacher will be laid off immediately, but the budget situation may result in an inability to hire some back in May.

School districts in Alabama are encouraged to keep at least one month of operating reserve and, if possible, establish their own rainy day accounts, he said.