Budget sill undecided, schools must sit and wait

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, April 12, 2005

School superintendents again are wondering how to proceed withtheir budgets as less than a week remains before teachers must benotified whether they will have jobs next year.

Superintendents have until Friday to notify teachers whethertheir contracts for next year will be renewed. Any teacher who doesnot receive a nonrenewal letter of intent automatically is renewedfor the next year under state law.

The problem, superintendents say, is that they cannot determinetheir budgets until they know how much money their district willhave.

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The Legislature adjourned last week without determining a statebudget, including money for education.

“We’re all just very much up in the air,” said Brookhaven SchoolDistrict Superintendent Lea Barrett. “We have to continue to planfor the next year, but without a budget it makes it difficult.”

At the state level, the Senate and House are expected to renewtheir battle to determine the state budget in a special sessionlikely to be called by Gov. Haley Barbour before the current fiscalyear ends June 30.

The state is facing a budget shortfall, with agency budgetrequests totaling about $500,000 more than the $3.8 billionlegislators have to spend.

The House wants to fully fund, or come close to fully funding,the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP became state lawin 1997 as a complicated funding formula designed to ensure thateach of the 152 school districts receive enough money to meetmidlevel accreditation standards. The Senate has proposedsignificantly less than the MAEP calls for.

Further aggravating the education stalemate is the last round ofstate-mandated teacher pay raises. Those pay raises will cost theBrookhaven and Lincoln County school districts nearly $1 millioneach to implement, the superintendents said.

A proposal to postpone the last round of pay raises until nextyear, or spread it out over several years was defeated before beingbrought to a vote.

In the meantime, as legislators grapple with the state budget,superintendents are left foundering, unsure of how to proceed andunable to postpone their decisions.

“I have not given out any nonrenewal notices at this point,”Barrett said. “And I won’t until there is absolutely no way aroundit. I’m trying to sit on this until the last possible moment,hoping for a miracle.”

The district is losing seven teachers to retirement and four torelocation, she said.

“Quite a few of those will not be replaced,” Barrett said.

She is reviewing the budget daily to see where additional cutscan be made, Barrett said.

With little direction on a budget, Barrett said she is using theSenate’s proposal as a worst-case scenario.

“We’ll have to make some personnel cuts, but we’re reviewingeverything,” she said. “We’re looking at all of our extracurricularprograms, even some of our academic programs that are not requiredto see what would cause the least amount of damage.”

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Brister saidhe is also concerned about the situation but added that thedistrict was strong and would be able to overcome with someadjustments.

“We’re looking at two or three different budget scenarios, andwe’re working from the worst to the best. It will be detrimental,but we should be able to overcome.”

The county district has also not handed out any nonrenewalnotices to teachers yet, he said.

“We’re trying to do what we can to have the least amount ofpersonnel changes, but we have to be ready for it,” Bristersaid.

This time last year, in much the same situation, superintendentshesitantly began handing out intent forms notifying teachers theircontracts would not be renewed.

Brookhaven School District passed out 17 nonrenewal notices lastyear, and the Lincoln County School District handed out 20. Thedistricts also released several noncertified employees, such asteacher assistants, cafeteria workers and maintenance workers.

Many of those teachers were rehired when the budget wasfinalized, but several had already accepted positions in otherdistricts.

Aside from the current crisis, Brister said he was concernedthat continuing budget crises on education would have a detrimentaleffect on the future of teaching.

“This sends a poor message to our teachers and future teachers,”he said. “I think it’s a shame. (In the Legislature) it’s all aboutdollars and cents, but down here they’re fooling with people’slives. People should not have to question each year whether or notthey’ll have a job next year.”