Miss. schools trying to trim fat from lean budgets

Published 11:34 pm Wednesday, January 21, 2009

West Tallahatchie School District Superintendent Howard Hollins is logging numerous hours in front of his computer as he searches for ways to trim an already tight district budget.

“I’m looking at line items for travel, supplies and equipment,” Hollins said Tuesday from his office in the tiny Delta town of Webb. “If they have not bought the equipment, they won’t be able to buy it. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, something like tissue, then it won’t be bought.”

Fourteen districts, including West Tallahatchie, will be in the red when Gov. Haley Barbour’s budget reductions take effect Feb. 1. Another 10 could possibly end up in that situation by the time the fiscal year ends June 30, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Barbour has ordered a 3.2 percent budget cut for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula used to determine how much money each of the state’s 152 districts receives.

The governor cut all state agencies’ budgets last week, saying Mississippi’s tax collections will be short between $175 million and $310 million before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Of the $87.8 million Barbour cut from elementary and secondary education, $76.6 million will come from MAEP.

School superintendents will meet Wednesday in Jackson with state Education Superintendent Hank Bounds and lawmakers about the reductions and to discuss other funding options.

No one had clear ideas about providing a funding cushion for the districts. House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the state’s rainy day fund may be an option, but cautioned that the money in it will have to last a few years as the nation rides out the recession.

By law, districts cannot operate with deficits, Brown said.

Barbour has said he only wants lawmakers to spend about one-fourth of the $360 million rainy day fund for next year’s budget.

House Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, wouldn’t commit to the rainy day fund as a solution for the schools this year.

“The worst thing we can do is expend all of the rainy day fund in the next 90 days,” Nunnelee said Tuesday.

Eliminating non-teaching jobs, cutting back on sports and imposing tax increases next year are among the ways districts may have to cope with the loss of state money.

Hollins said his district will be have a negative fund balance of $65,330 after the budget cut.

The district is in one of the poorest regions in the nation, and serves 910 students at three schools. The district has 82 certified teachers, said Hollins.

“It really puts us at a great disadvantage when you make the cuts this late in the year. You cannot cut teachers. When you start cutting noncertified positions, it takes too many of them to make a difference,” said Hollins.

He said class sizes will increase next year to reduce the number of teachers.

“We can make it next year with three less teachers and will save in excess of $100,000,” Hollins said.

Barbour said school districts have $517 million in reserve funds, but lawmakers and school officials say that figure is misleading because it reflects a beginning year balance. They say districts use those funds to operate throughout the year.

State Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, said the state’s high-growth districts are being penalized by the cuts.

Flowers represents DeSoto County, the state’s largest public school district with more than 30,000 students.

Flowers said the district had a $54 million reserve fund at the beginning of the budget year. He said that figure is now around $20 million. The district also taps into the fund for construction projects, Flowers said, adding that it is building three new schools.

“The solution is not grabbing reserve funds,” Flowers said.