State takeover looms in 4 Miss. school districts

Published 11:42 pm Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Four Mississippi school districts might have to be taken over by the state because of severe budget problems, state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds said Tuesday.

Bounds told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Indianola, Kemper County, Tate County and Noxubee County districts won’t have enough money to make payroll. He said the shortfall could happen in the next several weeks.

Bounds said a state takeover is the only option because the districts have no authority to borrow or raise taxes before the fiscal year ends June 30.

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Bounds said the state Department of Education would need lawmakers to provide $5 million in additional funding for the takeover to finish the current school year. He told them the department may need another $5 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“We’ve exhausted every source we can. We’ve looked under every rock, big or small,” Bounds said. “The only solution we have in current law is conservator statutes.”

When the state takes charge of a district, someone is appointed to essentially take over the district superintendent’s job and make necessary changes until the district has improved sufficiently to govern itself again.

Three school districts already are under state control, mostly due to academic problems — North Panola, Jefferson Davis County and Hazlehurst.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Tupelo, said lawmakers probably wouldn’t approve the $5 million request because state law only allows for a total of $3 million to be provided each year for school takeovers.

He said lawmakers would consider a funding bill that would be enough to help the districts make payroll.

Bounds said the schools’ financial problems aren’t the result of the budget cuts ordered by Gov. Haley Barbour. The governor has said he reduced state spending in response to weak tax revenue collections.

Bounds blamed the situation on mismanagement. He said in the Indianola School District, officials were spending federal money on state expenses, which isn’t legal.

In Tate County, school officials were operating three high schools when they only needed two, he said.

To operate the rest of the fiscal year, Bounds said $1.5 million is needed in Indianola; $1.2 million in Tate County; $800,000 in Noxubee County and $600,000 in Kemper County.

Bounds said he didn’t know how the federal stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama could benefit the struggling districts.

Some committee members were troubled by the idea of the state taking over four more school districts.

“The state Department of Education doesn’t have the wherewithal to run four or five school districts,” said Sen. Alice Harden, a Democrat from Jackson, adding that there could be more districts facing similar problems.

She suggested lawmakers consider allowing the districts to raise local taxes or borrow from funds generated by Sixteenth Section land. The 16th Section of each 36-square-mile township belongs to the schools, and is rented out by the state to help raise school funds.

Sen. David Blount, a Democrat from Jackson, said the situation is “frustrating.”

“For those of us who are committed to full funding of Mississippi school districts, it’s very, very frustrating to deal with the failing local management that impacts the state budget,” Blount said.

Blount said if the Legislature provides the money, strict new accountability measures should be imposed on the districts.

Of the $87.8 million Barbour cut from elementary and secondary education, $76.6 million will come from Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding formula for the state schools.

Many of the state’s poorer districts rely heavily on the formula. Barbour’s budget cut reduced Noxubee County’s funding by $317,000; Kemper County by $189,481; Indianola by $374,882 and Tate County by $487,942.