21 Jun Schools in a Squeeze (MS)

June 21, 2010

By: Chris Kieffer
Source: The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

During a time of year when most of their contemporaries are staying as far away from school as possible, a team of about 20 young men will be spending countless hours in the hallways and classrooms of Lee County’s schools.

Moving furniture, stripping floors and applying coats of wax, these high school and college students are a tangible example of changes caused by school budget cuts.

This year, the Lee County School District will not contract with custodial services for nightly cleaning of its buildings, saving the district $450,000 during a year when it must trim about $4 million from its budget.

During the school year, it will use the two or three maintenance workers it has on each campus, as well as teachers and students, to keep its schools clean and orderly.

During the summer, it has hired the team of high school and college students to prepare its buildings for the new school year.

Districts across the state are currently preparing their budgets for the 2010-11 school year during a time of limited resources.

State funding will be about 8 percen t less than the amount that was pledged in July 2009, although it may be slightly higher than the amount of actual state funding schools received during the 2009-10 school year. The actual amount schools receive will depend on whether the state receives federal money for Medicaid, which would give Mississippi’s school districts an additional $82 million.

Yet that amount could be cut again this year, as state tax revenues continue to come in below projections and the Gulf oil spill threatens to reduce the amount of taxes paid by tourists on the Coast.

Many districts also will face reductions in some federal dollars, and local tax money is in flux as the economy struggles to rebound.

“We’re not doing anything not absolutely necessary,” said Baldwyn Superintendent Harvey Brooks of his district’s budget for the coming year.

“The thing we’re worried about is the economy is not picking up as quickly as we have hoped.”

Northeast Mississippi school districts will respond to their decreased funding in a variety of ways.

Many have been unable to replace the positions of teachers who retired or resigned. They will reduce field trips and delay construction projects and bus purchases.

All districts will try to save money by asking faculty to use less electricity and paper.

“Two years ago, we could have even thought about a bond issue to build some facilities,” said Lee County Superintendent Mike Scott, noting that several of his campuses need more classroom space.

Although Advanced Placement classes have been added at each of his districts three high schools, he said, “my goal was to have even mo re at this time. Those are things you can’t even think about.

“We’re more concerned with keeping what we have and keeping teachers we have employed. There are so many things we’d like to do for our students if we had the money to do it.”

Schools are entering the third consecutive year with significantly reduced budgets, after sustaining 5 percent of state cuts in the spring of 2009 and nearly 9 percent reductions during the 2009-10 school year.

Yet as many districts become leaner and more efficient, there are fears about what lies ahead.

Federal stimulus money, which the state used the last two years to provide part of its funding to its 152 school districts, will not be available after this year. That could cost state school districts more than $128 million.

“Everyone has tightened their belt to the point where there is no more belt to tighten,” state Superintendent Tom Burnham said during a recent interview.

Northeast Mississippi superintendents admit that they are worried about what could be a cataclysmic budget in 2011-12. In the meantime, they have their hands full responding to this year’s lean budget.

“We’re very fortunate right now to be fiscally healthy, especially given the environment we’re in, but you can’t stay fiscally healthy without making cuts,” said Nettleton Superintendent Russell Taylor.

Taylor’s district will reduce 12 positions, some through retirement and others through cuts.

That number includes five teaching positions, as well as teaching assistants and maintenance workers. It will reduce by a third the amount of paper distributed to teachers and develop an e nergy plan for each of its buildings.

The Tupelo Public School District is pledged to receive about $640,000 more state funding than what it had to end the previous school year.

But anticipating future cuts, the district will budget only about 80 or 85 percent of the $28.7 million it is expected to receive from the state.

“In bad budget years, everyone suffers a little bit,” Superintendent Randy Shaver said.

The district will lose a handful of positions through attrition and will give some of its administrative interns a heavier load in the classroom.

It also will reduce its local supplement by paying employees for 189 days instead of 191. That does not represent a furlough because the state requires only 187-day contracts.

The district will reduce by 15 percent many of the line items on its budget, including transportation, paper and utilities. It did not cut any employees in response to the budget, Shaver said.

The district did lose about 20 teaching positions when it contracted with Ombudsman Educational Services, a private firm, to run its alternative school, but Shaver said that decision was made to improve educational quality, not because of budget concerns.

He also said several of those teachers may be able to find other jobs in the district or with Ombudsman.

Other districts will use a variety of other means to save money. For instance, Baldwyn will require its athletes to buy their own team shoes and jackets. Union County Schools will encourage teachers to use their planning periods to fill in for absent teachers instead of having to hire substitutes.

Amory Schools also will try to reduce substitutes by using two assistant teachers as full-time substitutes. The Monroe County School District will contract out its technology director.

Lee County will not spend $2.98 million it normally budgets for construction.

The district did not fill several positions and also did not create any new positions, something Scott said it would normally have done to respond to growing enrollment.

It also eliminated four teaching positions at Plantersville, but those cuts were in response to low enrollment at that school, Scott said.

In total, the district will have about 20 fewer teaching positions than it would in a good budget year, he said.

“In Plantersville, the student-teacher ratio is really low. It needed to be low because the school was a School In Need of Improvement,” Scott said, referring to the school’s past struggles to meet federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

“Now you can’t afford to do special things unless it is part of a grant we’ve received.”

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