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School leaders prepare for cuts in state funding

Cuts made to education spending by Gov. Haley Barbour Wednesdaywill force the Brookhaven and Lincoln County school districts tofinish fiscal year 2009 with a shortage of approximately $500,000each, but administrators say they are equipped to handle the suddenchange.

Barbour’s 3.5 percent cut to the Mississippi Adequate EducationProgram removed almost $77 million from the school funding plan,the primary source of state money for the local districts.

On the local level, the 3.5 percent cut will cause theBrookhaven district to lose approximately $458,000 from its roughly$13 million MAEP allocation, while the Lincoln County system’s $14million MAEP balance will be short about $490,000.

Even though the Mississippi Department of Education saidapproximately 20 of the state’s 152 school districts will not beable to absorb the cuts, officials from the Brookhaven and LincolnCounty systems said their districts will manage by making smallcuts and adjustments, and transferring funds around theirbudgets.

“Brookhaven School District certainly is not going to have toshut the doors,” said Superintendent Lea Barrett.

Barrett said her first step in rearranging Brookhaven’s budgetwould be to cancel or hold off orders of special materials and makedo with what the district has on hand. After that, Barrett said shewould likely withdraw money from the district’s $1.3 millionreserve fund balance, basically an emergency account administratorshold back to pay the district’s bills for one month in case statefunding is deposited late.

The third step, Barrett said, would be to save money throughattrition – foregoing the replacement of personnel who retire orquit – an often-used method utilized by both local districts toprevent having to terminate positions. Based on her district’saverage of losing 10-12 personnel per year, Barrett said she couldlikely save more than $300,000 through attrition – more than halfthe amount the district is losing to the MAEP cuts.

“I’m not going to try to terminate people for this year,” shesaid. “We’ll go to our reserve, then, as we get closer to the endof the school year, we’ll look at attrition.”

Lincoln County School District Business Manager Cheryl Shelbysaid her district would not need its own approximately $2 millionreserve fund, and could likely plug the MAEP gap by transferringmoney from different programs in the budget.

Shelby budgeted $500,000 for the district’s fuel account lastsummer when school districts and local governments statewide shoredup those accounts in the face of $4 per gallon fuel.

Now that the price of fuel has fallen, those organizations areleft with spare funding. Shelby said she could likely transfer atleast $250,000 out of that account to meet the MAEP shortage.

After that, Shelby said all the district’s revenue sources wouldbe checked for spare funds and attrition would be used to make upthe difference, and the district should be in the clear for2009.

“I’m already looking at $300,000 without looking hard,” shesaid.

While the local districts will likely be able to absorb the MAEPreductions for the current fiscal year, an even leaner state budgetis looming for fiscal year 2010. Barbour has previously said cutsof 4 and 5 percent may be implemented for state agencies next year,and administrators may have to cut jobs and programs to the bareminimum to stay afloat.

If 5 percent were cut from MAEP next year, the Brookhaven andLincoln County school districts could lose up to $654,000 and$700,000, respectively.

Deeper cuts next year may result in the elimination ofnon-certified positions like custodians, cafeteria workers and busdrivers in both districts if attrition and rearrangements cannotbalance the budget.

“We’re going to look at all areas and take a little bit at atime, just like [Barbour] is doing,” said Lincoln County SchoolDistrict Superintendent Terry Brister. “We’ll do everythingpossible before we get to personnel.”