School district hosts public hearing on budget

Published 11:23 pm Tuesday, July 3, 2018

NATCHEZ — Tuesday’s public hearing on the 2018-2019 budget for the Natchez-Adams School District was dominated by questions about the district’s declining student population, the cost of special education and the district’s efforts to be frugal with taxpayer money.

Using preliminary figures from the county and state, NASD Business and Finance Manager Monica Anderson presented the budget to the school board and approximately 20 residents.

Click here for the handout from NASD public hearing 

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Anderson said the school district does not plan to ask for more money from ad valorem taxes than it did last year.

Last year, the school district operated with a budget revenue of $39,664,797. Of that amount, $13,751,054 came from ad valorem taxes — taxes that primarily include property taxes and vehicle license tags.

The school district presented a budget for 2018-2019 that includes $41,373,988 in revenue. Of that amount, $13,336,053 is projected to be financed from ad valorem taxes, a drop of $415,002 from last year.

Anderson said the district had not received final numbers from the state and that preliminary figures may be more than what the state will ultimately send under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

“I have heard that there may be a 9-percent cut in our funding,” Anderson said.

As part of her presentation, Anderson described more than $960,000 the district has saved after electing not to replace employees after they have left the district. Positions include seven teacher assistants, bookkeepers, secretaries, attendance clerks, plumbers, custodians, a computer technician, a maintenance supervisor and other positions.

Anderson also listed more than $124,000 in savings from which the district has benefited in the last two years as a result of decreasing travel, renegotiating contracts, eliminating yearbooks and reducing litigation costs.

Several members of the public asked questions about how the district was responding to the decline in the community’s overall population.

“We have a declining population, which makes for a declining tax base,” Kevin Wilson said. “It makes sense to dwindle things down.”

NASD Superintendent Fred Butcher pointed to many of the cuts the school district has made in his 26 months in office as an example of the district’s efforts to be frugal with taxpayer money.

Butcher pointed to the district efforts to cross-train employees as a way to reduce staff as workers retire.

“When I came to this job there were a lot of hurdles we had to cross — some academic hurdles, a lack of staffing hurdles,” Butcher said. “So in the last 26 months, we have tried to … make the best possible decisions for the system, its students, along with the community, so as a result, we have been preaching about cross-training.”

However, Butcher said such changes do not happen overnight.

“You just can’t preach cross-training today and have the people cross-trained tomorrow,” Butcher said. “We are getting ourselves in the position to have fewer employees as they retire.”

Natchez resident Paul Benoist also asked a question about declining population and the school district’s efforts to build new schools.

The district is currently planning to build a new high school and renovate other schools across the district.

Benoist pointed out that the district’s enrollment has been down about 8 percent from 2017 to 2018 and asked if the district had projected what the enrollment would be three to five years out.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, enrollment decreased from 3,553 students in 2017 to 3,276 students in 2018.

Benoist suggested the city look at turning Braden School back into an elementary school and Margaret Martin into a junior high school.

“As the city and the county are both continuing to contract regarding population, you might consider looking again at some of the older, better-built buildings for renovations as opposed to expanding the footprint of the community that is emptying out in certain parts,” Benoist said.  “It might be advantageous for us to rebuild the former community we already have.”

Butcher said the district hasn’t specifically looked at Braden or Margaret Martin, but that older buildings require much work to meet current codes, especially when it comes to infrastructures, such as gas, water and wiring.

Some residents asked questions about the school district’s per-pupil costs. Compared to the state average of $10,496 per student, NASD spent $12,348 per student in 2017.

Butcher said one of the reasons the cost per student ratio is nearly $2,000 more per student than the state is because of the number of special education students in the district.

“Our special education population is pretty high,” Butcher said. “With special education students, you automatically have a lower student-teacher ratio. The additional services that you are providing are included in the overall cost per student.”

School board member Dr. Renee Davis-Wall said the increase in the number of special education students is not isolated.

“We may have more (special education students) in this area I do not know, but it is increasing nationwide because you have people being diagnosed more regularly — kids where before they were deemed a discipline problem or somebody who just wasn’t smart.”

Wall and Butcher said once the students have been diagnosed the district is required to meet federal guidelines.

“We can’t just deny a kid or cut that because there are federal laws in place that protect these kids with disabilities,” Wall said.

Retired educator Carl Niven asked what the district was doing to help students get out of special education into mainstream society.

Wall said therapists work to give special education students various skills.

“Unfortunately a lot of the kids you see are in a long-term situation where they may never get out of a special needs classroom,” Wall said.

Asked how the district’s number of special education students compare to other school districts in the state, board members said they did not know.

At the end of the meeting School Board, President Amos James said the board is committed to being transparent and committed to making progress.

“We are trying to cut back and use your money wisely,” James said. “All of us here pay taxes, just like you. I want to make sure we are using money wisely.”

“This is our community. These are our schools and we are going to get better,” Amos said.