Level funding isn’t level for schools

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Ocean Springs Upper Elementary serves fourth, fifth and sixth grades in the Ocean Springs School District.

Ocean Springs School District

Ocean Springs Upper Elementary serves fourth, fifth and sixth grades in the Ocean Springs School District.

The Mississippi Legislature this year voted once again to fund public schools at the same level as the previous year, which for many districts means another year of challenges to balancing their budgets.

At Ocean Springs School District, Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter said the school district is looking at a budget shortfall of $1.02 million this coming year.

“What people need to understand is that anytime they hear that we are receiving ‘level funding’, that will always be a cut to the district budget,” Coleman-Potter said. “The money we were given to operate the school district last year will always be in deficit to the money that we will need to operate in the next year because of the costs of doing business that annually must increase.”

Coleman-Potter said she has had to cut 40 central office and teacher positions in the past four years. This upcoming year, she anticipates the district will have larger class sizes of up to 40 students per classroom. Coleman-Potter said the district is trying to hold on to programs such as robotics, fine arts and music.

There are similar issues for the Greenville Public School District.

Greenville Superintendent Leeson Taylor said due to level funding for the 2015-16 school year, the district had to cut some positions outside of the classroom.

This upcoming school year, level funding will likely translate to increased class sizes and hanging on to older classroom technology.

“In terms of updated computers … LCD projectors and smart boards, those things that you see in more affluent areas, we’re not going to be able to implement (them) here,” Taylor said. “We’re going to have to make what we have last longer and take care of what we have.”

Both Greenville and Ocean Springs have also either reached their mill cap or are close to it. Districts are currently limited to a maximum local total millage rate, or the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property, of 55 mills.

Both superintendents said their districts depend on state funding to run efficiently.

“We depend on MAEP (the state funding formula) to give us a level playing field because the expectations are the same,” Taylor said. “You don’t look at Clinton and say Greenville does not have to meet certain standards. We have to meet the same standards as everybody else but we’re not starting from the same playing field.”

To help their cause, Taylor said the district looks at federal funding and partnerships with local businesses, such as Mars Food North America in Greenville.

“They’ve helped us in several key areas: activities for the children, like school gardens … fiscal renovations to our high school cafeteria (and middle school cafeteria) this year,” Taylor said.

Sara Miller, Senior Policy Analyst for Hope Policy Institute

Hope Policy Institute

Sara Miller, Senior Policy Analyst for Hope Policy Institute

Sara Miller, a senior policy analyst for the Hope Policy Institute said level funding means another year of superintendents getting less than what’s required to do their jobs.

“They have to decide where to use the funds they do have,” Miller said. “Whether that means delaying maintenance on a school, not hiring a new teacher, not buying a new school bus (or) not purchasing new textbooks or supplies.”

Miller said some districts could counter these effects by bringing in revenue from other sources, such as raising local taxes. Yet, poorer districts may not be able to raise as much extra revenue because of the size or value of their tax base.

Some districts are being creative to make ends meet.

Last year, voters living within Tupelo Public School District’s territory were asked whether they will allow it to issue $44 million in new bonds without increasing taxes. The district’s “Safe and Sound” bond request passed with 85.5 percent of voters approving it.

Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said bond issues tend to be used to fund new construction projects. This bond money, however, will be meeting other district needs, such as infrastructure and technology upgrades.

“This year, thanks to the bond issue, we’re more than breaking even,” Loden said. “It’s more of a maintenance and operation fund issue … We’ve had buildings with leaky roofs that we’ve had to replace. We’ve delayed purchases for textbooks and other things over the last few years. The bond issue has taken some of that pressure off.”

Loden said the district has been level funded since 2008, and being level funded can be difficult due to inflationary costs.

“If you go back to 2008 and look at what our automobile costs, Directv, groceries and utilities, everything has increased since 08,” Loden said. “Fuel costs are slightly lower, but your electricity and other costs have increased substantially.”

He said the district has almost reached its mill cap, which can limit its ability to address budget shortfalls.

Clinton Public School District Finance Director Sandy Halliwell

Clinton Public School District

Clinton Public School District Finance Director Sandy Halliwell

Clinton Public School District Finance Director Sandy Halliwell said the district grew 200 students over the previous year. Since MAEP funding is based on average daily attendance, Clinton will be receiving an increase in funding for next year, she said.

Yet, the district is still prioritizing requests from its schools and departments and budgeting what they can, meeting the district’s highest needs first, Halliwell said.

Clinton Public School District Superintendent Phillip Burchfield said the revenue that will come with the district’s enrollment increase will prevent any potential cuts, such as cutting personnel.

“Somewhere between 65 to 70 percent of the budget is personnel,” Burchfield said. “That’s where the money is.”

Burchfield said Clinton is looking for more growth this coming school year, which will help the district supply its classrooms with up-to-date technology

The superintendent said the district had to raise millage to pay for its technology initiative some three or four years ago. With that, there are other needs that have to be covered, such as training teachers on how to utilize that new technology in their classrooms.

“There is nothing that will make the difference of a great classroom teacher,” Burchfield said. “We have to be mindful of that, too.”