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School district looking for $900,000 in budget cuts

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Special education teaching assistant Patrice Cothern shows Tony Gamberi the direction to properly mop the bathroom in the special education classroom at Natchez High School. Part of the special education students’ instruction is how to do many daily chores and tasks.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Special education teaching assistant Patrice Cothern shows Tony Gamberi the direction to properly mop the bathroom in the special education classroom at Natchez High School. Part of the special education students’ instruction is how to do many daily chores and tasks.

Natchez-Adams School District officials begin Thursday identifying nearly $900,000 in expenses to cut from the district’s budget.

Those cuts will come after the district already cut $1 million in anticipated expenses across various district departments.

The cuts were determined when district officials mapped out mandatory expenses to operate the district and examined what was left behind across the various departments.

How did the district with an average annual budget of $39.8 million wind up needing to cut nearly $2 million just to continue operating?

“I don’t know how we got here, but I know how we’re going to fix it,” Superintendent Frederick Hill said. “We didn’t anticipate needing to cut this much, but that’s why I wanted to start early to develop the budget so we could have plenty of time to analyze and make these decisions.”

To Hill’s credit, he came to his position in the district just prior to the current year’s budget being finalized in July 2012.

“I was here for the budget hearing last year, but it was done at that point and I wouldn’t dare step in with such a close deadline and start changing things,” Hill said. “I can’t blame anybody for what’s happened in the past, but come August if there’s a problem, I’ll be the person to blame.”

Board president Wayne Barnett said the district’s current financial woes could be mainly attributed to being consistently under funded by the state.

The State of Mississippi will provide the district with $15,080,189 — a $330,057 decrease from what the state gave the district last year. The decrease in funding, Hill said, is believed to be because of a lower projected enrollment for the upcoming school year.

“The state started cutting the amount of money they’re supposed to provide for local schools while also encouraging us not to raise taxes,” Barnett said. “The board demanded a couple of years ago, under the previous superintendent, that we cut the budget and we did cut some things, but it still complicated things that you’re cutting things while not getting the same amount of revenue from the state as you were before.”

The district’s plans to overcome state budget cuts had been to draw on funds in the district’s 16th Section land interest funds.

In December 2012, district business manager Margaret Parson told the school board the funds were nearly depleted, after the district had spent $7.3 million from the funds since 2001.

With its piggy bank quickly running dry, the district’s only options are to cut expenses or raise taxes.

“We’re not even going to think about raising taxes until we’ve looked at every cut we can possibly make,” Hill said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Have we pulled every dollar we can to make this work?’

“Raising taxes is the last thing I want to do.”


Already on the chopping block

Expense cuts already planned range from choosing not to purchase a new edition of textbooks for the upcoming school year to cutting 12 special education teacher assistant positions.

Hill said all the cuts, however difficult they may be to make, are necessary to continue operating the district and providing a good education for children.

“At this point, quality of education won’t be affected because we’re not limiting student’s opportunities to learn by not having to cut teachers,” Hill said. “These are hard decisions to make, but we have to stop and think with every one we make, ‘Is this decision based around helping our students?’

“We have to do what’s best for our students.”

After Hill and other district administrators made a list of mandatory expenses for the district, a list of anticipated cuts was submitted for three different departments — district maintenance, federal programs and special education. No cuts are anticipated from the food and nutrition department.


Maintenance reductions

District maintenance receives funds from local, state and federal sources. Administrative and teacher salaries, athletics and utilities are among the various expenses from the account.

The anticipated cuts from district maintenance total $273,051 — leaving $28,607,692.14 in total expenses. District maintenance consists of 72 percent of the total budget.

The largest expense being cut is $200,000 for textbooks.

Hill said the decision not to purchase new editions of textbooks for the upcoming school year was based on the Common Core State Standards. Those are educational standards adopted by a majority of states across the nation aimed at putting all students on the same learning level.

Certain grades in the district are already learning Common Core material, but the entire district must be teaching the material by the 2014-2015 school year.

“Textbooks are very expensive and all the Common Core experts will tell you that there are no books out there yet that cover what is required for Mississippi, so it’d be a total waste of money to buy textbooks this year and turnaround and buy new ones next year,” Hill said. “We’re going to keep the books we have, while continuing to seek other materials that align with the curriculum we will be teaching.”


Federal fund cuts

The anticipated cuts from federal programs totals $533,273 — leaving $995,663.90 in total expenditures. Federal programs consists of 2.8 percent of the total budget.

The largest expense being cut from federal programs is consultant fees, which total $262,000. Another $124,567 will also be cut from software programs in the district.

Hill said the consultant cuts were a cost-cutting measure that could free up federal dollars to be used to fund full-time positions in the district.

“We’re trying to free up those dollars for our own people in the district who will be less consultants and more full-time employees,” Hill said. “An example of that includes building a curriculum department that would consist of six academic coaches who would help revamp curriculum and be in the classroom helping teachers and students.

“Those positions would be exactly what the consultants were doing, but they are our own people with salaries that actually end up costing less than the consultants.”

The positions, Hill said, would be filled with people from within the district who would be promoted to the academic coach positions. Those salaries would be paid for through federal dollars.


Special education savings

The anticipated cuts from special education totals $236,096 — leaving $1,090,550 in total expenses. Special education consists of 3.3 percent of the total budget.

The largest area of expenses being cut in special education include 12 out of 14 teacher assistants, which total $179,626 in savings.

Hill said a recent audit conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International showed the amount of special education students and teaching assistants didn’t match.

An individual education program (IEP) defines objectives for an individual student who has been identified as potentially having a disability or learning disorder.

Hill said the number of teacher assistants needed for special education students is factored by a student’s IEP that shows they require assistance in the classroom.

“What was happening is that over the years when students would leave or get off an IEP, the number of assistants wasn’t changing to reflect that,” Hill said. “So we are keeping the number of assistants that are necessary and required to handle the amount of students we currently have with those IEPs.”

Patrice Cothern has been a special education teaching assistant at Natchez High School for 15 years. Cothern’s job entails supervising special education students throughout the day including when the students are in classes with other high-school students.

Cothern said she feels her job is beneficial to other teachers at the school who might not know to handle a special education student.

“If you have 20 kids in the classroom on one side who are all moving at one pace and then three on the other who need more attention, it’s going to affect that teacher to have to stop and help them,” Cothern said. “It also affects the students who have to wait for the teacher to get done helping those other students.

“What happens when you have to take this one to the bathroom and you have to leave all those students alone in the classroom?”

Cothern said district officials notified her and other teacher assistants of the potential cuts earlier this month. A final decision on which assistants will be cut will be passed down on May 31, Cothern said.

While Cothern said she understands district officials are doing their best to continue operating the district, she also said some of the cost-cutting measures could affect students.

“If they would go in the classroom and see the child and what their needs are, it’s totally different than what you’d expect,” Cothern said. “I’ve been blessed with this job for many years, and I’m pretty confident I’ll be here after May 31.”


More cuts ahead

Even with $1 million in cuts to district spending already anticipated, Hill said the district remains $900,000 over budget — meaning that further cuts are still required.

District officials and administrators will meet with NASD school board members Thursday to begin looking at other areas that can be cut from the budget.

A public hearing for the 2013-2014 budget will be hosted in July before the board approves the budget at its regularly monthly meeting.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Hill said he requested all department chairs and district administrators create a wish list that identifies things they consider essential to the district.

“We’ll be going through those wish lists and begin identifying items we know are truly necessary and what we can afford to cut,” Hill said. “Some people will walk away upset from the decisions because it’s hard to justify cutting this and not that.”

A few potential areas to cut Hill said he will present include things such as travel for district employees as well as examining the district’s bus routes.

“Those are some things we need to sit down as a board and district and analyze to see if we’re spending our money wisely for those things,” Hill said. “It’s not necessarily cutting services, but just figuring out how to do more with less and live within our means.”