Schools stuck in budget funding mire

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The lack of a state budget continues to vex local schoolofficials, who are unable to craft their own local spending plansuntil a recessed Legislature returns to Jackson in late May to fundeducation.

With only three weeks remaining until the start of fiscal year2010 on June 1, local school officials are scrambling forinformation on the Legislature’s intentions for education fundingwith practically meaningless, mock budgets prepared for nextyear.

Brookhaven School District Superintendent Lea Barrett said theextent of education funding – whether programs such as theMississippi Adequate Education Program are fully funded or furthermillions of dollars are cut from the system – would have a hugeimpact on her district. Further cuts could require further localfunding.

“As I understand it, the Senate and the governor are talkingabout funding basic education, but not funding what the statespends on gifted education, special education and transportation,”she said. “Which means we would have to absorb a significant amountof money.”

Barrett said the district would have to use local funds to payfor 21 special education teachers, seven gifted teachers and theentire transportation budget if the Legislature votes to cut fundsfrom MAEP. The only other option would be sharp cuts to theinstructional programs, as transportation funds are anecessity.

“If the district had to absorb all that, significant is not eventhe word,” she said. “It would be a devastating hit.”

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Brister saidhis district might require more local funding if further educationcuts are made as well.

“I guess we’d have to go to the taxpayers,” he said. “That’snice, isn’t it?”

Brister’s administration has already fought off one cut earlythis year, dipping slightly into the district’s fund balance andtransferring surplus funds across the fiscal year 2009 budget tofill a $445,000 hole created when the governor cut MAEP byapproximately 3.5 percent.

“We were thinking this thing would be over now,” he said. “Wethought when (the Legislature) went back into session it would be adone deal, and look what happened.”

School budgets are further complicated by mystery surroundingthe American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which wasoriginally lauded as a funding source for holes in currentbudgets.

Gov. Haley Barbour’s office is drawing up an application processthrough which districts would submit their needs and receiveportions of $321 million in stimulus funding for the fiscal year ofthe application – a plan that would fix fiscal year 2009 budgets ifthe application process is finalized and used within threeweeks.

“Until I know a final number, I can’t answer that question,”Barrett said when asked of the possibility the application processmay not be ready in time to repair fiscal year 2009 budgets. “Myunderstanding was that it was to restore funding lost in 2009 andthen to any cuts that might happen in 2010, and the remainder for2011. As I understand it right now, they’re planning on using itnext year.”

If the $321 million stimulus appropriation was divided evenlyamong the state’s 152 school districts, then both Barrett andBrister could look forward to approximately $2.1 million additionaldollars. But such an even distribution is unlikely, Bristersaid.

“They’ll give us what we call a ‘wish list,’ but (legislators)did not know what they were going to get for sure to approve ourlists,” he said. “We may wish for $100 million, but we may not getbut $50 million. I think they wanted to see what each district’swish list was – I think they’re starting to take steps to see justhow big a deal this is.”