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Miss. lawmakers OK $3M for public school takeovers

Lawmakers have sent the governor a bill that provides an extra $3 million to the Mississippi Department of Education to cover the takeover of public school districts this fiscal year.

The action Wednesday came as education officials moved closer to putting two more school districts under state control. The Commission on School Accreditation passed resolutions recommending that Indianola and Tate County school districts be taken over by the state because of budget problems.

The Mississippi Board of Education will meet next week and may vote on the resolutions, said Department of Education spokesman Pete Smith. Gov. Haley Barbour would have to declare an emergency in the districts before the state takes control.

Tate County has a budget deficit of more than $1 million and Indianola’s shortfall is about $2.4 million, according to Smith. He said Indianola will not be able to make payroll this month.

The House and Senate passed a bill that will provide $3 million to the Department of Education to cover the costs of running the districts.

The bill, which is now headed to the governor, also provided $1 million to help pay for the cost of transporting Medicaid dialysis patients and $588,000 to pay the salaries of district attorneys and assistant district attorneys.

The additional education money will come from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee. Lawmakers originally voted to use federal stimulus money for the takeovers.

“The reason for the change is the federal stimulus money has to be spent by 2011,” Nunnelee said. “This is not actually an expense. We’re making an interest-free loan to these school districts and they’ll pay it back to us.”

Smith said if the bill becomes law, the money will be placed in the School District Recovery Fund account. That money cannot be accessed until Barbour declares an emergency in the districts.

Last month, state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds told lawmakers a total of four districts were on teetering on conservatorship. However, his agency later determined that the school districts in Kemper and Noxubee counties had enough money to pay expenses through the current fiscal year.

The bill is House Bill 865.