School leaders tout successes

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Despite multiple cuts to education funding and the prospect oftighter budgets ahead, Lincoln County’s public, private andstatewide schools are in good shape and succeeding academically,school administrators countywide said Tuesday morning.

The Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce’s QuarterlyMembership Breakfast was devoted entirely to reports from the frontlines of local education, with superintendents and school directorsinforming the public of the challenges they are facing and sharingthe good news of recent academic successes.

Brookhaven School District Superintendent Lea Barrett announcedseveral achievements made by students in the city school district -such as the district’s two National Merit finalists and oneNational Achievement Scholar – but also spent several minutesattempting to clear funding misconceptions in education.

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“When you hear that public education in Mississippi takes 62percent of the state budget, that’s not accurate,” she said. “Thetotal state revenue is $11.5 billion, but half of that is setaside. If you look at what K-12 education takes out of the statebudget, it’s actually around 24 percent.”

Barrett also pointed out that out of the district’s $27.8million budget, $13 million was state-funded by the MississippiAdequate Education Program, and $1 million of those dollars werestimulus funds. She said the district could have lost 23 teachingpositions without the stimulus funding.

The district has already lost more than $1 million in educationcuts carried out over the last year, and the $1.2 million reservefund the district maintains is needed each January and February tomeet payroll when the gap between state and local fundingdeliveries makes cash flow short, Barrett said. Additionally, astate-mandated audit being performed this year will cost thedistrict another $50,000.

The Mississippi School of the Arts is directly controlled by theMississippi Board of Education and operates very differently fromregular public schools, said school director Suzanne Hirsch, butfunding shortages have made MSA’s operating budget very tight for2009-10.

“Our budget is $2.9 million, the smallest it’s been in threefiscal years,” she said. “We’re expecting more budget cuts, so wehave our own challenges. We do not get to carry a fund balance. Youdon’t spend it, you don’t get it back next year.”

MSA has found success in recovering dollars, however. Hirschsaid the 48 seniors who graduated from the school in 2009 garnered$3.2 million scholarships, an average of more than $66,000 perstudent.

To relieve the pressure MSA seems to always face from somemembers in the Legislature, Hirsch said the school would targetlawmakers in an awareness campaign to shed light on the school’ssuccesses. The school’s students are the constituents of almostevery legislator in the state.

“We have 42 counties represented in our student body, and wehave represented 88 percent of the counties in our seven years,”she said. “We’re working diligently to get that other 12percent.”

Lincoln County School District Superintendent Terry Bristeravoided financial talk during his presentation and pointed out theacademic growth his district is experiencing. He said the countyschool district has a vision and is working to achieve it, and allfour county schools are now equipped with the laboratories andresources needed.

“Lincoln County schools have always been known as those littlecounty schools in the sticks that just don’t know what it takes. Igot news for you, we’re on our way,” Brister said. “We’ve got 3,152kids – we’re not a little district. We know what it takes. We havebeen bound and determined, with the help of the people ofBrookhaven and Lincoln County, to change that perception. We’recrawling to the top.”

Brookhaven Academy interim Headmaster Herbert Davis said thelocal private school has 465 students and operating on a budget of$2 million budget, with all tuition going to pay salaries.

“Financially, we’re solid as a rock, but we’re like everybodyelse, we’ve had to cut back in some areas,” he said.

Copiah-Lincoln Community College President Dr. Ronnie Nettlessaid his school system has not gone untouched by state fundingshortages either. He said the situation became noticeable when thesystem’s Natchez campus was recently awarded as that city’s LargeBusiness of the Year.

“It says a lot about our economy when the local communitycollege is the large business of the year, but it also speaks tothe impact we have on our communities,” he said.

Nettles said approximately $4.7 million of the school’s $23.3million budget is funneled back into Lincoln County by way ofemployee salaries, payments to businesses and working students’pay.

“Our fight often is also your fight,” he said.