Thursday, February 23, 2012
County worries about state cuts
By SUE WATSON
The Marshall County Board of Supervisors motioned to send its concerns about possible education funding cuts and unfunded mandates by the state Legislature this year to the supervisors’ association.
The Mississippi Association of Supervisors is the lobbying group for county boards of supervisors.
The discussion arose in talks with county board consultant Gary Anderson, who warned that Jackson may be looking at school district reserve funds to plug holes in the state budget. He said former Gov. Haley Barbour was looking at those reserve funds as of December 31 last year.
Anderson said school district reserve funds are not a picture of what a school district has in surplus, because money the districts have in December and January have to last the whole year.
“I urge you all to communicate with Superintendent Moore,” Anderson said. “It’s getting ready to blow up. They are cutting all agencies 5.5 percent. The quickest way for school districts to go into problems is to not have reserve funds. That’s what happened in Tate County.”
Supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett asked Anderson what school districts would do if they have capped out on all the ad valorem taxes they can raise under state law.
Anderson said staff reductions and cutting curriculia would be looked at first.
Supervisor George Zinn III asked if the state would take over a school that did not have adequate reserves.
“It would force it in that direction,” Anderson said. “Hazlehurst and one other district went under.”
Anderson said unfunded mandates would force local governments to raise taxes.
“The reserve fund is just not the place to make up the difference (in state budget shortfalls),” Anderson said.
“The governor said education is one of his main priorities,” Zinn said.
“Governor Bryant has talked about using some state funds in high growth areas.”
Bennett said the state has $380 million in total reserves.
“Where is that going?” he asked.
“I do not know how he’s planning to use that, but he’s thinking of going to education in high growth areas like DeSoto County and Jackson,” Anderson said. “We need to feel comfortable in our reserves and what the impact would be. Put that on the radar as a direction they are getting ready to head. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said he is not in favor of using that for those other purposes.”
Anderson said the state had issues with funding big ticket items such as Medicare and Medicaid, education, and increases for junior colleges and institutions of higher learning.
“The state reserves could go into any of these (budgets),” Anderson said.
Supervisor Charles Terry asked what the board of supervisors can do.
“The Mississippi Association of Supervisors is monitoring it and trying to prevent unfunded mandates locally,” Anderson said.
“It would be good to say something to them,” Terry said.
“To say, no more unfunded mandates,” said Anderson.
With that, the board passed a motion to contact MAS and let them know Marshall County supports efforts to stop unfunded mandates.
In a separate interview with Jerry Moore, superintendent of the Marshall County School District, he said the district is monitoring the situation day-to-day and weekly with the help of the local delegation. Moore said he believes this will be a tough year for funding of education, but he won’t panic until the governor and Legislature have time to work everything out.
“There is no need to dramatize anything until April,” he said, meaning the end of the legislative session when the state budgets should be set.
The funding formula for the Marshall County School District has shifted over the last five years, he said, because of state budget cuts under the Barbour administration.
The state had funded the Marshall County School District to the tune of 62 percent of its operating budget, but dropped in the last year or so to 55 percent, he said. The school district receives 25 percent of its budget from federal dollars, up 6 percent from last year, and 20 percent from local school taxes.
The school district has made up for the state cutbacks by writing federal grants, bringing in 25 percent of its budget, he said. The grants have helped replace the roll-back in state monies, he said.
Moore explained how the state school district dollars could be distributed in the next budget year.
The local district was cut $2 million over the last five years in the state appropriations for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), and could be cut another half million dollars by the Legislature this year, he said.
“It is being said that they will underfund education by $79 million this year, which for our district would equate to about $.5 million,” Moore said. “We’ve always tried to stay two pay periods ahead (in reserves) because the governor told us several years back that there may be times when funding would be cut or reimbursements made to districts could arrive late. We were told by Barbour to prepare and keep some monies in reserve, and we did.”
Current talk in Jackson has suggested that one way to keep school districts funded is to trim funding for school districts with adequate reserves and shift that money to districts with inadequate reserves, he said.
“I don’t know if taking from one district and giving to another is constitutional,” Moore said. “State funding is based upon the average daily attendance. It is difficult for me to understand the fairness in taking from those who have been fiscally responsible and punishing them by giving it (the reserve) to those who have not.
“I think right now there are a lot of ideas going on down there in Jackson and I don't think we’ll know the real legislation concerning our funding for several more weeks. These ideas change daily and even hourly. I do think, based on his comments, that Governor Bryant plans on working a way to fully fund MAEP over the next several years, but I don’t think that can happen right now.
“The state has never truthfully fully funded MAEP, but I believe from listening to Governor Bryant that this is one of his long-term goals.”
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