PRC School Board discusses tax hikes

Published 1:16 pm Tuesday, June 30, 2009

For ths Pearl River Central School District, each year trying to align a budget is, at best, a lesson in futility due to the conflicting fiscal years between the school district and the county. Throw into the equation the unprecedented delay in the state budget, figuring out how much money is needed for the 2010 preliminary school budget is much like trying to come with the exact number of raindrops that will fall in the town of McNeill during the next hurricane. And, on what day they will fall.

Thursday night, PRC Board of Education members, along with superintendent of schools, Dennis Penton, and the district’s business administrator, Megan St. Clair, fielded questions and suggestions from frustrated district residents over the proposed possible increase in school taxes. The district predicted an increase of 2.62 mills.

Frustrated at yet another rising costs, residents argued for cost cutting measures such as cutting out small projects budgeted for the school band, to eliminating sports and art activities, arguing that sometimes “we all have to tighten our purse strings.”

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“If you want to do something, put the money on education not band and ball,” said one woman, while another expressed her anger that money was being bounced around. “We all rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “But Peter don’t have it no more.”

Penton answered the residents’ concerns, noting that while, yes, a project to erect a small wall to improve sound quality for the band was in the proposed budget, but that it was nominal in the whole scope of the budget. “The first thing everyone wants to cut are the arts and sports,” he said.

But, he continued, it was not in the students’ best interest to automatically start cutting in those areas. “We do our best to produced educated and well-rounded citizens,” said Penton. “Sports and arts add a lot to their education because they have the opportunity for social and intellectual interactions.”

When questioned by yet another resident as to the actual cost of educating a student, citing a number she had been told was between $2500 to $4800 each, Penton said that the figure she cited was not actually accurate. “Many people want to break down the budget to black and white, such as what it costs to educate a student,” said Penton. “But it is more than that. There is feeding them, housing them, getting them here, the electrical, the air conditioning … if you want an exact cost, divide our budget by 3079 students.”

That number, he said, came to $9,387 to educate a student in the PRCSD. “That includes the highest cost, instructional services of $4538 per student to operation and maintenance of $1035,” said Penton. “I agree things are too high – gas, electrical, food. I wont’ get into an argument that costs are escalating, but we are not the most expensive school district in the state, we are 20th out of 150.”

Penton further told the residents that the district had made several cost cutting moves to the budget including raising the number of students per classroom and cutting field trips. “We are increasing the class size,” said Penton, noting that the average size was between 25 to 27 students per teacher. “We don’t want to sacrifice education. We haven’t increased the class size to the state maximum; we are trying to get the best education for our students.”

The district has been struggling to put together a budget for several months now in the shadow of the state legislature and governor’s office bickering over what to do with monies from the federal stimulus package. Faced with a deadline to produce a budget, the district recently ran a required legal advertising the possibility of the ad valorem school taxes increasing by two and half mills.

Unfortunately, explained St. Clair, by law the school district must come up with a figure for that legal advertising and coming up with a figure is difficult. “We have had to print a tax increase even in years when (the) millage has actually gone down,” continued St. Clair.

She went onto explain that because the county’s fiscal year runs from October through September, and theirs from July through June, coming up with a figure, much less actually knowing how much money will be available, is virtually impossible. She said that as the district must ask for a certain amount of money to run the school district several months before the county knows how much money it will have from taxes, PRC, along with all the other school districts, must use previous years’ increases and decreases to best determine what they think the figure will be.

“The different fiscal years between the county and the school district impacts how we put our budget together,” continued St. Clair. “The Mississippi legislature can fix that if they put us all on the same fiscal year.”

Pointing to last year’s legal advertising, St. Clair said the district had predicted an increase of 3.43 mills, but when the numbers were finally dealt out, the tax levy actually decreased. But she said, new assessments of properties, some not re-assessed in years, had caused many property taxes to increase. “But it wasn’t the school taxes,” said St. Clair.

Noting that only 19 percent of the budget is composed of fund from the taxes, St. Clair said that the majority, 51 percent comes from state aid, and without a state budget, they are going on best guesses. “We are already dipping into our reserves,” said St.Clair. “Local taxes are not going to make it up.”

This year’s budget will tap into the fund balance for $1.1 million, leaving around $3 million.

St. Clair said that even if the taxes do rise, property owners are only looking at an actual small increase in their school taxes. “Based on an assessed value of a $100,000 home, you could see a possible increase of $15.60,” said St. Clair.