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Budget limbo puts Miss. schools in difficult spot

Mississippi school administrators are increasingly frustrated because lawmakers can’t agree on a state budget for the year that begins July 1.

Until the state spending plan is complete, local school boards can’t finish deciding how to allocate money for everything from teacher contracts to extracurricular activities.

There’s no sign an overall $5 billion state budget will be ready when the full House and Senate return to the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. Negotiators from the two chambers had no plans to meet before then.

Some school districts are already offering contracts to teachers for the coming year, but others are holding off until they know how much money is coming from the state.

The budget year for Mississippi’s 149 school districts and three agricultural high schools also begins July 1. By mid-June, local boards usually finish writing their budgets and holding mandatory public hearings to discuss where the money will go.

In DeSoto County, Superintendent Milton Kuykendall said Tuesday that contracts have been offered to current teachers. But he said the fast-growing district needs to hire several new teachers, and that can’t be done until legislators set the budget. The DeSoto schools, in the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn., have 30,616 students — an increase of 7,000 in the past five years.

“We’ve got plenty of applications from people who want the jobs,” Kuykendall said from his office in Hernando. “I just got off the phone from a prospective teacher who wanted to know why she hadn’t heard from us.”

Mississippi lawmakers usually finish the budget by early April, but they delayed their work this year to give negotiators more time to analyze how the federal stimulus package will affect state government. In the past couple of weeks, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has been pushing legislators to put $60 million into a Medicaid reserve fund that could be tapped in January 2011, after the stimulus money is gone.

The Senate supports Barbour’s idea, but the House opposes it. The two chambers have been feuding about the reserve fund for more than a week.

Howard Hollins, superintendent of the West Tallahatchie School District, said Tuesday the uncertainty about the state budget is “frightening.” If no budget is in place by July 1, Hollins wonders where school districts would get the authority to continue paying employees.

“Never having gone through this before, you don’t have anybody you can pick up the phone and call and say, ’How do you handle this?”’ Hollins said.

James Morrison, superintendent of the Stone County schools, said his 2,800-student district already has offered contracts to teachers, and the local board is drafting a preliminary budget.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we perceive to be the worst case scenario,” Morrison said.

Conwell Duke, superintendent of the Pontotoc city schools, said his 2,300-student district has offered regular contracts to teachers but is holding off on confirmation that nationally certified teachers will receive the $6,000 annual pay supplement they have earned.

“We are hoping that the state will hold up its end of the bargain,” Duke said of the pay supplements.

Hollins, in West Tallahatchie, said he worries his rural, 925-student district — one of the poorest in the state — could lose employees because of the budget limbo.

“It’s difficult for us to get teachers,” Hollins said. “So it’s even more difficult for us to let teachers walk away from the district.”