More money won’t fix our schools

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 9, 2010

Let me preface my remarks about the Natchez-Adams School District’s proposal to raise taxes with the statement that I am a strong advocate of the teaching profession. My grandmother was a teacher, my father taught Latin and English and served as school principal, my mother taught math, and my son currently teaches high school science. I was a volunteer tutor with the Barksdale Reading program for several years at West Primary and McLaurin schools. I am well aware of the sacrifices our teachers make: low salaries, lack of support from parents and school administrators, too many undisciplined and uncaring students … all because they truly care about the learning process.

After attending the meeting with the school board last week, I have given the matter of school budgets and the problems of our school system a lot of thought. I was quite impressed with the amount of data provided at the meeting, but I suggest in the future that administrators provide budget information for the past several years along with a comparison of actual expenditures vs. budget projections. This way the public can see the trends of how the school district spends our money.

For those senior citizens at the meeting who complained a tax increase would hurt those on a fixed income, please note that citizens over 65 do not pay real estate property taxes on the first $75,000 value of their home. Just go to the tax assessor’s office and show evidence of your age to qualify for this exemption.

The following information was provided at the meeting: 3,988 students in the school system with 91 percent black and 8 percent white; 93 percent of students qualify for free/reduced meals, but the most important disclosure was that Natchez spends $10,263 per pupil vs. the state average of $8,896. This means Natchez spends 15 percent more to educate each student. When asked about the disparity, it was explained that Natchez had more special education students than the average district.

Based on 2008/09 data, the Natchez total cost per pupil was the 33rd highest of the 152 school districts in the state. And despite this higher expenditure per pupil, the Natchez-Adams School District received an accountability rating of “At Risk of Failing.” Of the seven categories of performance, this rating is sixth right above “Failing.”

Based on the information available, I just cannot understand why the school district cannot operate with the budget it presently has. The district already spends more per pupil than the state average and yet it received a rating of “At Risk of Failing.” If I were convinced the school administrators had made some harder choices in cutting expenses of the administration (not teacher salaries), were able to replace under-performing teachers and implement a pay for performance system for teachers, then I would be more inclined to agree with the decision to increase ad valorem taxes.

But I am not sure any amount of money would cure all the ills of school system until we address the ills of our society. Mississippi is among the poorest states in the nation and we have the most obese citizens, and our academic scores are among the lowest. We have the highest rate of children living in single parent homes (45 percent according to a 2008 study by the National Kids Count Program). Teenage pregnancies are also among the highest in the nation. All of this makes it so difficult for a family to break the cycle of poverty. Education is the only way out of this dilemma.

So how do we address this problem? One answer might be to start to scale back on government payments such as food stamps, temporary aid to needy families, certain parts of supplemental security income, earned income tax credit and other welfare programs.

We need to make it clear to our young people that a good education is critical to getting a job and earning enough money to support your family. If the government safety net was eliminated, perhaps the incentive to learn would be enhanced.

I realize that such action by the federal government is quite remote, but with the ever increasing spending by the current administration causing the federal deficits to reach unacceptable levels, talk to your elected officials about the need to curtail spending, and maybe we can start with the so called “entitlement programs.”

Duncan McFarlane

Natchez resident