School officials get creative with district budget

Published 12:04 am Sunday, August 21, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Natchez High School librarian Sandra Peoples helps Taylor Jordan, Ashleigh Fulton and Deneishia Dunbar with checking out books Friday afternoon.

NATCHEZ — Living life with $380,000 less than expected required some creative thinking, but it didn’t mean sacrificing educators or student learning, Natchez-Adams School District administrators said.

District officials recently cut the funds from the proposed budget in order to avoid increasing local taxes.

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Natchez High library assistant Laura Williams-Jackson, left, helps librarian Sandra Peoples with library duties Friday afternoon at Natchez High’s library.

By looking for ways to redirect locally funded positions to federally funded ones and implementing some creative scheduling, the district made sure it didn’t sacrifice the main goal — education.

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One of the most noticeable changes occurred in the Natchez High School library, where two librarians have been on staff for more than a decade.

Librarian Judith Larson was transferred to Frazier Primary School, where the long-time librarian had recently retired.

Larson kept her job, but the district saved a salary.

The remaining librarian at Natchez High School, Sandra Peoples, said handling the work on her own worried her at first, but her principal Cleveland Moore came through quickly and creatively.

A former teaching assistant in the vocational department on Natchez High’s campus was reassigned as a library assistant.

Peoples will now take total responsibly of some duties restricted to certified librarians, but the assistant will be around to pick up other tasks.

Both Peoples and Moore said the change is something they can handle.

“Rather than add additional personnel we use what we have,” Moore said.

NASD Business Manager Margaret Parson said other moves that saved local dollars included funding three positions previously paid using local and state dollars with federal monies.

The shifting has to be strategic, however, because the school district can only spend its $11.8 million in federal funding on certain things, Parson said.

“Everything can’t use federal dollars,” Parson said.

Federal funds must be used to supplement the district’s budget — not take the place of local dollars.

For instance, federal funds, which make up approximately 30 percent of the district’s budget, can pay for tutoring, extra supplies, salaries for some special education teachers, a federal program director and other salaries.

During her first month as interim superintendent in July, Joyce Johnson was given a directive by the school board to try to eliminate a proposed increase in taxes, which was equal to $25 more in taxes on a $100,000 house, by cutting the district’s locally funded revenue.

Johnson said she was familiar with tight budgets from her days as a principal.

“This is what you have, and you learned to live within that budget,” Johnson said of the budgeting mentality she operated on as a principal.

So Johnson, Parson, Assistant Superintendent Morris Stanton and Federal Programs Director Marilyn Alexander-Turner got together for several budgeting sessions over a few weeks to realign their needs with their revenue sources.

“It was time consuming, but not difficult,” Johnson said.

During efforts to squeeze every cent out of each federal dollar, Johnson said she learned the administrative staff knew their departments well.

“Ms. Turner would say, ‘Mrs. Johnson, you can’t do that, but here’s what you can do,’” Johnson said.

“We worked together,” she said.

Johnson said the administration had to get creative with the budget because the district is also working with less in state funding than in past years.

“We don’t have the kind of cushioning (in the budget) we had when I was here before,” Johnson said. “We don’t have that luxury.”

Johnson retired as an administrator from the district in 2004.

According the Mississippi Adequate Education Program — a Mississippi Department of Education program that calculates how much state funding local districts should receive — the state under-funded NASD by $1.7 million for the fiscal year 2011-2012, Parson said.

The state allocated $16.7 million to NASD for 2011-2012.

Parson said the district also had less in federal funds to work with compared to the 2010-2011 budget.

Many federal cuts resulted because the district was required to spend one-time allocations of stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act before Sept. 30 of this year.

The district’s 2011-2012 budget of $40,737,526, which reflects $4.49 million in revenue cuts from the state and federal levels was similar to last year’s overall budget.

“We really have to tighten our buckle,” Johnson said.