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NASD to request $800k more in ad valorem taxes

NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams School District’s plan to request $811,855 more in taxes next year likely will hit taxpayers in the pocketbook.

But district officials maintain the increase is necessary and say approximately one-third will fund state-mandated teacher pay raises.

For an average homeowner, that might mean an increase of approximately $18 per year for a house assessed at $100,000, per preliminary figures provided by the county tax assessor’s office.

District officials listened to feedback Thursday on its proposal during a public hearing on the tax increase requested for the 2014-2015 school year.

By law, the district must host a public hearing and advertise the increase before it can be approved and sent to the Adams County Board of Supervisors to be converted into a millage.

Only five residents attended, with some questioning the increase at Thursday’s hearing.

Duncan McFarlane asked board members and district officials to explain why per-pupil expenditures in Natchez are higher than the statewide average.

In the estimated per pupil expenditures for 2013, Natchez spent $10,253 while the statewide average was $8,291.

“I asked this question several years ago, but never got a real definite answer,” McFarlane said. “Why does it cost us more to educate our students than the average school in Mississippi?”

Board member Thelma Newsome said she didn’t believe the statewide average should be compared to the NASD.

“A lot of schools in the State of Mississippi have very little tax base, so they don’t have money and resources,” Newsome said. “We may appear to be over the line when you look at it in that light.

“But when you look at Natchez and compare us to other districts with the same tax base and revenue, I think you’ll find we’re comparable with those districts.”

School board president Tim Blalock agreed with Newsome and said NASD would likely only compare to a handful of other districts in the state in that regards, but instead get lumped in with various others.

“Of the 151 school districts, only six or seven of them are as big as us,” Blalock said. “If we do a mean or an average it’s going to mess up that number, but a median would get rid of all the outliers.”

The district currently receives $11,936,759 from local ad valorem taxes, which is generated by taxes on real estate property, automobile tags and business equipment, among others. For next fiscal year, the district’s proposed budget includes $12,748,614 in ad valorem taxes, an approximately 6.8-percent increase over the current year.

Blalock listed a number of reasons why the increased funds were needed.

Nearly $283,000 will be needed, Blalock said, to pay for teacher pay raises passed by the Legislature last session.

The state provided the district with $167,000 for the raises, but NASD Business Manager Margaret Parson said the district has nearly $450,000 in raises to distribute.

“So we’re automatically in the hole $300,000,” Blalock said.

Another $140,000 is needed to pay for remodeling costs and new equipment for one school, Blalock said.

Blalock said the remaining portions of the increase, which would total approximately $388,855, would be used for other costs associated with the district’s restructuring plan.

The plan is aimed at creating smaller learning environments at district schools and will change the structure and layout of Morgantown Middle School, Natchez High School and Robert Lewis Magnet School.

Another portion of the increase, Blalock said, will be needed to payback $140,000 being loaned from the district’s 16th section principal fund account, which are funds schools districts in Mississippi can collect interest and revenue on by leasing land for farming, hunting, agriculture or oil and gas exploration. A portion of the account must remain untouched by the district, while the interest can be spent.

The district can borrow money from that trust to pay for certain things like building new buildings, repairing or maintaining buildings or transportation. Any money borrowed from the trust has to be paid back with interest.

The district will borrow $140,000 to pay for cafeteria equipment for the Central Alternative School building, which will house district ninth graders as the Freshman Academy, as well as a new air conditioning unit and the replacement of flooring at the Steckler Multipurpose Building.

Blalock asked NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill if he felt as if all of the additional funds were needed and if the district is doing the best it can with the money it has already.

“Absolutely,” Hill replied. “First of all, we don’t have money to splurge, so we’re using every dollar we can as efficiently and effectively as we can.

“These are the items we’re looking for our budget to support, and ultimately, it will lead to student achievement.”

Some of those goals Hill listed included increasing graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates, as well as increasing district performance to at least a non-failing performance level per the state’s annual accountability ratings.

Blalock also asked Parson to review the funding sources of the district’s budget.

Parson told the board members the state would be underfunding the district $1,812,625 through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which was created to equally distribute funds to the state’s public education system. The program has been fully funded only twice since it was signed into law in 1997.

The district, Parson said, has been underfunded $14,989,197 by the state since 2005.

State funds account for 41 percent of the district’s total $40,425,097 revenues in its 2014-2015 proposed budget.

The proposed increase would result in a 1.82-mill increase based on the preliminary assessment figures, Parson said.

Motor vehicle taxes paid for school purposes could increase by $16, if the preliminary figures remain true, Parson said.

The school board will vote to approve the budget at its next meeting July 17.