Schools may face budget ax

Published 6:00 am Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Mississippi Department of Education and its primary fundingmethod for school districts will not be exempt from the list ofstate agencies and programs facing up to a 5 percent budget cutthis year, a Lincoln County lawmaker said Wednesday.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said Gov. HaleyBarbour broke the news at a luncheon meeting of state economicdevelopment leaders, explaining that lower-than-predicted taxrevenues would force the once-exempt department and its MississippiAdequate Education Program to face cuts.

MAEP is a state program that provides school districts with themajority of their yearly funding and is a huge item in the statebudget. Education funding accounts for more than 65 percent ofannual state expenditures.

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According to Currie, Barbour removed the department of educationfrom the list of agencies facing earlier budget cuts in November.But now that the state budget has fallen tens of millions ofdollars below expected totals, state school districts will onceagain face cutbacks.

The Division of Medicaid is now the only state agency not facingcuts, Currie said.

“What people are going to have to understand is we’re going tohave to tighten our belts,” she said. “When the money’s not thereat home, what do you do? You cut back. We’re going to run the statelike we would run any business or household budget.”

Even if education funding is cut, local school officials saidmost of their expenditures are non-negotiable, leaving them withfew options for reducing their own budgets.

“At this time, somewhere around 75 percent of our budget ispersonnel, and by state law, a reduction or loss in funding is nota legitimate reason to terminate a contract,” said BrookhavenSchool District Superintendent Lea Barrett. “The only thing we cancut back on is supply and material from now until the end of theschool year, and that would mean a pretty heavy tightening of thebelt.”

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Brister saidhis district’s budget is also primarily spent on personnel. He saidhe would trim all other areas of his district’s budget before hewas forced to release personnel, if it comes to that.

“I understand we’re not unique in a way that would exempt usfrom any type of cuts, but we’ve had cuts for years,” Bristerlamented. “It’s a shame that they might put us in that position,because we’re just now getting settled. That’s what we’ve dealtwith year in and year out, and I’d just like to get some type ofconsistency.”

Of course, the governor’s cuts may never become reality, nomatter how dire the state’s financial situation is.

Barbour is almost guaranteed to face legislation calling for thefull funding of MAEP from the Democratically controlled House, andpossibly even from the Senate, where fellow Republican Lt. Gov.Phil Bryant lists MAEP as a priority on his “Common SenseAgenda.”

“It’s unusual, but I agree with Phil in his assessment that fullfunding of education is common sense,” said District 91 Rep. BobEvans, D-Monticello. “I certainly will cast my vote in anyopportunity I have to keep MAEP funding where it’s supposed tobe.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said Barbour wasacting prematurely in his aim to trim the education budget. Thelawmaker said he will vote in the other direction when given thechance.

“We’ll just gear up with it and hold the line just as hard as wecan for the education budget,” Moak said.

At this stage in the budget process, Moak said the governmentwill have to depend on state agency department heads to recommendwhere – and by how much – their agencies can take cuts remainfunctional. He said no cuts should be enacted until the Legislaturehas heard such reports.

Furthermore, Moak said Barbour could not legally cut educationspending until all other state agencies were trimmed by 5percent.

“That’s when legislators will begin making their decisions onwhat we have to do,” Moak said.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, said thepolitical pressure in both chambers of the Legislature and aroundthe state would be too much for Barbour to enact cuts toeducation.

“After he has been saying all this time that education would bespared, and a lot of legislators have told their constituents thatas well, it would be hard to go back and cut,” she said. “I don’tforesee us cutting education.”

Hyde-Smith did not commit to supporting or opposing the cuts.However, like Moak, she said the process was still too early tomake a decision.

“Obviously, the governor has some new information and we’ll haveto look at it,” she said. “This is just one of those things we’regoing to have to work through.”

Even Currie, the only local Republican and usually the only onestanding with the governor, inferred that nothing is final. Thesession, after all, only began this week.

“We haven’t seen the numbers yet, so in a couple of days we’llhave all the numbers, look at them and go from there,” she said.”It’s very difficult to say what anyone is going to do.”