School leaders voice state funding concerns

Published 6:00 am Monday, March 21, 2005

Local school superintendents expressed additional concern overeducation funding following a meeting Thursday between educationofficials and Legislative members.

Citing comments from House Education Chairman Cecil Brown,D-Jackson, Brookhaven School District Superintendent Lea Barrettsaid the one-time money used to save public education in past yearsis gone. Of the $800 million needed by the state in projectedrevenue this year, only $170 million can be found.

“That means the Senate and the governor, with their no new taxespledge, are going back to their original projections on publicschool funding,” Barrett said. “And that leaves us very short onwhat we need.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Lincoln County School Superintendent Terry Brister agreed.

“This is a shortage on what we have to come up with. This is nota shortage on what we want,” he said. “This is not excess. This iswhat we are short on to operate fully.”

At the meeting Thursday, the Mississippi Association ofSecondary Superintendents (MASS) said administrators across thestate are taking hard looks at their districts and consideringoptions many would normally consider inviolable.

Among those options are the cancellation of extracurricularactivities, such as athletic programs; gifted programs in themiddle schools, restricting or ceasing the purchase of newtextbooks and classroom supplies, travel expenses or bus routes;and adopting a four-day school week, according to MASS.

One other option is the non-renewal of teacher contracts to cutdown on personnel costs, which represent 85-90 percent of the localdistricts’ budgets, Barrett and Brister said.

“I’m not saying we’re looking at any or all of those things herenow,” Brister said. “These are some of the things they’re lookingat statewide that might be appropriate for their school. “

Brister said he is taking a wait and see approach to theappropriations and has not begun to determine where cuts would needto be made in the event of a shortfall.

“We’ll look at all areas, but we have no idea to what extent itwill affect us here yet,” he said.

Barrett said the Brookhaven perspective appears grim. Reducingthe number of the certified and non-certified staff, restricting orceasing travel and elimination of programs all options on thetable.

“And that’s just to maintain basic education services for ourchildren,” she said.

However, Barrett admitted Brookhaven School District employsmore certified teachers than required by the state in order tolower classroom size and also offers several programs not mandatedby the state. They would be the first to come under review shouldthe shortfall be passed down to the local level, she said.

Both superintendents agreed that the state-mandated teacher payraises are causing much of the discomfort.

Brister said state appropriations for the county district in2004-2005 were approximately $11 million. An increase for 2005-2006of approximately $1 million is needed to cover the cost of theteacher pay raise and associated benefits, such as insurance andretirement.

The state is estimating increasing the district’s appropriationsby $500,000, he said, leaving the district still $500,000 short ofwhat it needs.

Barrett’s estimates are similar. She said she needs a $1.1million increase, but is projected to receive approximately$500,000.

“The pay raise alone, without benefits, is an increase of$770,000 and they are going to fund $430,000 of that and say theyfunded the pay raise,” she said.

Both superintendents expressed concern that lawmakers wouldadhere to their no new taxes pledge only to expect the localdistricts to make up the shortfall.

“My feelings are the pay raise will be put on the backs of thelocal taxpayers,” Brister said. “I think that is ridiculous. Thestate voted it in, the state should fund it.

“I don’t think any of the teachers who would be receiving theseraises believe it should be done that way either,” he continued. “Ido believe teachers are deserving of a pay raise, but I don’tbelieve it should be put back on the shoulders of the local schooldistricts and local taxpayers.”

Postponing the teacher pay raise until next year or until thestate is in better financial shape would help districts”tremendously” in meeting their demands, Brister said.

He said postponing the raise would essentially allow districtsto maintain last year’s funding levels, greatly reducing the amountof funding the Department of Education would have to request fromthe state.

Barrett agreed, but called such a scenario unlikely.

“I have not run those numbers to see (how the district would beimpacted without the pay raise). I don’t think that’s going tohappen,” she said.