Sunday Focus: Elected officials leave state schools underfunded
Published 12:47 am Sunday, December 14, 2014
NATCHEZ — As the battle to fully fund Mississippi public schools prepares to heat up in the coming legislative session, Natchez school leaders can only wait to see what piece of the pie they may receive.
Since 2008, legislators have ignored a state law and spent $1.5 billion less on education than what’s required by law.
The Natchez-Adams School District has been underfunded $10,877,914 since 2008, according to figures from The Parents’ Campaign, an advocacy group that seeks full funding for school districts across the state.
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In response to a lack of state funding, about 80 percent of Mississippi’s 146 school districts —including Adams County — have raised property taxes since 2008, the last time lawmakers provided full funding under the state formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
The formula, created in 1997, was meant to help equalize funding for districts with small tax bases.
Only 45 percent of Natchez’ total $37.1 million revenue came from the state, with 23 percent coming from federal sources and 32 percent coming from local sources.
School districts across the state have tried to make up the funding gap caused by state shortfalls by raising local property taxes.
From 2008 to 2013, local property tax collections rose by $232 million. That was enough to allow for a small increase in spending on operations, but they still fell $231 million short of inflation.
The NASD requested an additional $811,855 in taxes this year — citing being underfunded from the state — to fund a variety of renovations needed for the district’s restructuring program that changed the make up of two schools.
NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill, who took over the district in 2012, faced a series of significant budget cuts last school year to a budget that was already finalized before his arrival.
The district identified nearly $2 million in across-the-board cuts after mapping out mandatory expenses to operate the district and examining what was left behind across the various departments.
Those cuts would have been less severe with proper funding from the state the superintendent said.
“I don’t know if the district has suffered from the funding, but we have had to make some cuts,” Hill said. “What it has done is impacted our community because of the increase in millage which goes to property taxes.”
By law, some districts can’t raise property taxes any higher to fund operations, leaving them even more dependent on state money.
About one in six districts has reached Mississippi’s cap on taxes for operations such as salaries, supplies and buses, leaving few money-raising options and putting the emphasis on cuts.
The requests from the Natchez school district have brought total property tax mills for schools to 52.44.
The cap for the NASD is 55 mills, and the Adams County Board of Supervisors is required by law to pass the district’s funding requests if the total millage stays under the cap.
Across the country, state spending is lower than before the recession in 35 states, according to a recent review by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Yet it hits Mississippi harder because the state’s per-pupil spending levels — $7,926 in 2010-2011 — were already among the nation’s lowest and its percentage of students in poverty is the highest of any state.
The statewide underfunding of school districts sparked a lawsuit this fall by districts to make the state pay what the districts say they’re owed.
The NASD heard from representatives of the lawsuit in July, but chose not to join the suit.
Better Schools, Better Jobs, another Mississippi advocacy group, is trying to get a funding guarantee written into the state constitution in an attempt to force lawmakers to provide full funding.
The group managed to collect 121,691 signatures — including more than 2,500 in Adams County — to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2015 general election ballot.
BSBJ Communications director Patsy Brumfield said the organization’s main concern now is that state legislators, exercising an option for any signature-gathering initiative, will put an alternative on the ballot.
House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said this month that legislative leaders have started talking in general terms about putting an alternative next to the education funding initiative on the 2015 ballot, but they haven’t agreed on details.
Brumfield said she believes the tactic is political in nature and one that will ultimately impact Mississippi children tremendously.
“This is a dirty trick meant to completely muck up the process and confuse the voters,” Brumfield said. “They’ve had 17 years to fully fund education, but they haven’t done it and now it’s time to do that.
“We’re working hard out there talking to friends and allies to talk to individual legislators to vote against any sort of alternative being put on the ballot.”
Critics say instead of fully funding education, lawmakers gave large tax breaks to businesses and chose to fill the state’s savings accounts. Another gap looms in the 2016 budget year. According to early estimates released by the Mississippi Joint Legislative Budget Committee Tuesday, the state could fall $280 million short again.
The proposed $6 billion budget for the fiscal year 2016 would set aside $31.1 million for the second year of a teacher pay raise, but would again fall short for the funding program.
Mississippi teachers are scheduled to receive an additional $1,000 per year effective July 1, 2015.
The budget would also decrease funding for Medicaid, universities, community colleges, human services and mental health.
Hill said he supports the work Better Schools, Better Jobs is doing, but also doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse when it comes to estimating the amount of state funding the district will receive.
Even if the amendment passes, the funding wouldn’t come through until the following fiscal year.
Until that happens, Hill said the district would have to continue looking at ways to save money while also looking to expand programs throughout its schools.
“We have to constantly be looking at ways we can cut that don’t have a direct impact on kids,” Hill said. “In a way, it all has a direct impact on kids but to me, the last thing we will ever want to cut are teachers.
In 2014, legislators filled the state’s savings account to the legal limit of $410 million, but increased school funding by less than $10 million after teacher pay raises.
The Legislature will convene Jan. 6.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.