Budget cut talk worries school leaders

Published 9:00 pm Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cuts in education spending recommended byGov. Phil Bryant could be burdensome to local schools, educationofficials warn.

    Bryant’s budget recommendations to the Legislature included areduction in K-12 school funding by $73 million, or about 3percent, to be offset by the use of school reserve funds.

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    Brookhaven School District Superintendent Lisa Karmacharya declinedto comment specifically on Bryant’s proposal without more knowledgeof it, but did challenge the popular characterization of reservemoney as a “rainy day fund.”

    Kamarcharya said the money is “un-obligated” but noted that schoolsmust be prepared for emergencies.

    Brookhaven reported $3.7 million of unrestricted funds to theMississippi Department of Education in December 2011, said districtDirector of Finance Susan Quin.

    “That sounds like a lot and it’s really not,” Karmacharya said.”That can be gone in a year.”

    She noted the district is considering $1 million in roof repairsthroughout the district. Karmacharya also said other unforeseencosts can be very significant: A bus can cost $80,000 or more.

    “That money can be gone very, very quickly,” the superintendentsaid. “You have to be prepared.”

    Indeed, that $3.7 million may soon begin to dwindle.

    Quin said she may soon ask the board of trustees to restrict themoney needed for the roof repairs. She also said the currentreserve is only a little over half of the district’s monthlypayroll of $1.5 million.

    “It’s a healthy balance, but I don’t think it’s an excessive fundbalance,’ Quin said. “We do anticipate using it for the educationof our children.”

    Schools are required to keep a fund balance equal to 7 percent ofrevenue, but with a higher reserve 14 to 17 percent recommended,Quin said. The minimum balance for Brookhaven would be $1.4million, with the district’s actual balance of $3.7 million fallingwithin the recommended range.

    In the 2011-12 school year, the Brookhaven district received about$12.8 million in state funding, 46 percent of the district’sapproximately $27.8 million in revenue for that school year.

    Lincoln County Superintendent of Education earlier this week voicedconcerns about state budget plans during the county’s school boardmeeting. The county district has more than $7 million in reserves,but Brister was worried about possibly starting a trend of askingschool districts to utilize their reserves.

    “The money we have saved is one-time use money,” Brister said.”Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

    Bryant recommended 5.53 percent cuts for most other state agencies,including community colleges and universities.

    However, Copiah-Lincoln Community College President Dr. RonnieNettles hopes for level funding from the Legislature, warning thata 5 percent cut would be burdensome.

    “It would very difficult to absorb a 5 percent cut,” Nettlessaid.

    In the 2011-12 school year, Co-Lin will receive $8,750,262 fromstate appropriations, roughly 37 percent of the school’s 2011-12revenue, said Michael Tanner, the school’s vice president ofBusiness Affairs.

    That total does not include any state grants the school willreceive this year.

    Nettles said if saddled with a 5 percent cut, he does not know whatactions his administration would recommend to the board. Nettlesdid say he would not lightly consider a tuition increase.

    “We would not immediately turn to a tuition increase,” Nettlessaid. “We don’t want to harm accessibility.”