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Funding uncertainty leaves school budgets in limbo

School administrators will be forced to miss at least onestatutory deadline for renewing teachers’ contracts this year whilebeing forced to wait for the Legislature to rejoin a recessedsession and appropriate education funding.

Lincoln County School District Business Manager Cheryl Shelbysaid state law requires teachers’ contracts to be renewed ornon-renewed on either April 15 or 10 days after the appropriationsbill is passed. The mid-April option will almost certainly bemissed, as lawmakers sit out the month of April while awaitingguidelines for using federal stimulus money, and the post-signingoption will cramp the lengthy budgeting process, she said.

“To be ready by July 1, I would have to be able to advertise mybudget on June 1,” Shelby said. “The statute requires a lot ofdifferent things to take place before that budget can be adopted,and it’s about a one-month turnaround to get all those stepsdone.”

Without budgets, districts cannot set aside money for therenewal of teachers’ contracts – or any other operating expense -until the Legislature appropriates education funding, from whichapproximately 80 percent of districts’ funding comes. StateSuperintendent Dr. Hank Bounds instructed school budget-makers tocompile mock budgets and prioritize items that can be cut ifrevenues don’t match expenditures, Shelby said.

“I was certainly hoping they would ease the statutoryrequirements this year, given the budget situation, but to myknowledge they did not do that in the regular session,” she said.”Whether they can do that when they come back in session, I don’tknow. I asked that question in the meeting (with Bounds) andeveryone just kind of looked.”

Brookhaven School District Superintendent Lea Barrett saidbudgets can be amended later and still be within the law, even ifthe statutory deadlines are missed. She does not believe lawmakerswill go through the process of changing statutes to allow morebudgeting time this year.

“The law dictates our timelines, and those timelines don’t goaway because the Legislature went home without handlingappropriations,” Barrett said.

Even though work on temporary budgets is under way in both localdistricts, uncertainty concerning the stimulus package’s $470million education allowance could force the spending plans to bescrapped.

Shelby said last year’s increase in teachers’ step-up pay scalecould cause some districts to go under-funded. Even without theraise, Shelby said the county’s experienced teachers would requirean additional $175,000 for fiscal year 2010.

“They haven’t even finalized the salary scale, and if they doanything to change the MAEP salary scale, that would open back upeverything and I’d have to start from scratch,” she said.

Further questions remain about how stimulus funding can be spenton education.

“They’ve got to determine whether that restoring funding meansevery part of (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program), or justequity funding to balance out districts with low property values,”Barrett said. “That’s where we’re kind of on hold.”

With the confusion surrounding stimulus appropriations andeducation funding, neither district has begun renewing teachercontracts or hiring replacement teachers.

“If you have a teacher with 26 years of experience, by law sheshould get a step increase,” Barrett said. “But if they don’t fundthose extra steps, even though they’re in the law, that money wouldhave to come out of the district pot. That’s why we’re holding offon contracts.”