Schools lacking budget totals as hearings near

Published 5:00 am Friday, June 12, 2009

Both local school districts have scheduled public hearings earlynext week to propose next year’s budget to the public, but neitherthey nor the state’s other 150 school districts have a real budgetto plan around.

Instead of unveiling new budgets at the Lincoln County andBrookhaven school board meetings on Monday and Tuesday night,respectively, school officials from both districts will insteadpresent a modified version of last year’s budget to use as astarting point and make amendments later. School officials aroundthe state are hoping the Legislature – which has so far failed toreach an agreement a state budget – will appropriate money foreducation that is equal or higher to last year’s total.

The county district will hold its budget meeting at 4:30 p.m.Monday, and the city district will hold its hearing at 6 p.m.Tuesday.

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“We are preparing for the worst case set of numbers we have seenso far and we’ll go from there,” said Brookhaven School DistrictSuperintendent Lea Barrett. “We can take those basic requirednumbers and work from that point. This is probably the tightestbudget we’ve ever prepared.”

If education funding for the 2009-10 school year is far off ofschool officials’ predictions, Barrett said her district’sestimated $27.5 million budget would have to be amended. She saiddistricts are recommended to amend their budgets at leastquarterly, and variations of 10 percent or less are generallyacceptable to state and federal education authorities.

“The budget is a living organism,” Barrett said.

There is some room for change in both districts’ budgets,however. While both districts have issued contracts to returningteachers, neither has begun filling spots vacated by retiring orotherwise leaving staff.

“Holding on those positions lets us get down to the bare bones,but that’s not the way we want to operate,” Barrett said. “We didnot cut any programs. You are not required to have a gifted teacheror a music teacher in elementary school, but we did not cutanything.”

Still, school officials are expected to stay close to thefigures announced in next week’s budget hearings.

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Brister saidstate law requires the hearings be held despite the situationsurrounding the state budget. He said a state funding shortcomingin his district’s predicted $25.5 million budget might have to berecouped with district money.

“We’re going to use what we did last year and hope and pray thatwe hit it,” Brister said.

Brister said school officials are not expecting big cuts toeducation this year, but a number of options for funding theMississippi Adequate Education Program – the main state programused to fund K-12 education in the state – make budget planningthat much more difficult. At first, school officials were advisedto prepare for three possible MAEP plans – full funding from theHouse, $20 million less from the Senate and $40 million less fromGov. Haley Barbour.

Brister pointed out that now, with lawmakers set to return to aspecial session in which Barbour will control the agenda, thoseoptions may change.

“We may have four now that the governor has taken over,” hesaid. “We do know we’re going to get something, we just don’t knowhow much. We don’t know what to tell people. Is it going to be a$100,000 difference? A $200,000 difference? We just don’tknow.”