HOLDING STEADY: Natchez school board forgoes a tax increase, leans into ESSER funding

Published 5:03 pm Thursday, April 13, 2023

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NATCHEZ — The Natchez Adams School District’s ad valorem tax request for the fiscal year 2024 presented at a special called budget workshop Tuesday is the same as this school year, officials said.

The 2024 tax levy request is $14,246,155, the same as NASD’s 2023 request.

Each year, the school district may legally request up to an increase of 7 percent in tax funds.

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The tax request includes $13,800,686 for general operations and $445,469 for a three-mil tax note used to pay the debt service on the new high school construction.

According to Tim Byrd, the district’s business and finance manager, actual local contributions during the fiscal year 2022 were $14,102,196 and the projected local contribution in 2023 is $14,250,000 of the $41,547,595 total budget. This budget also includes $15,399,547 from state and $11,898,048 from federal sources.

Federal funds are projected to increase immensely in 2024 with the anticipated Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds provided to the school district through the CARES Act. The amount budgeted in 2024 from local sources is $14,473,523, from state sources is $17,211,400 and from federal sources is $45,992,719.

A total of $22 million is included in ESSER III, which the school district must have allocated by September 2024.

However, only specific projects are allowed to be paid for by ESSER funds.

Gary Bailey, owner and president of Bailey Education Group LLC, said many school systems across the nation had used the funds for heating and cooling projects, ventilation and hands-free bathroom and toilet renovations. Some have used the funds for building projects, such as expanding congregational areas like cafeterias that were too tight to allow proper distancing of students, he said.

“I have seen a couple of districts that have added classrooms, but to do that, they have had to justify adding teachers to go with them, thereby creating smaller class sizes to create a better student separation within the classroom,” he said. “Those have really been the exceptions versus the rule. No athletics whatsoever have been approved. … The federal, as well as the state auditors, have been very, very consistent. They’ve been all over it and there are going to be many districts getting audited by the state as well as the feds on their use of the ESSER dollars, both with facilities and education at risk of losing those dollars.”

School officials consulted Bailey for numbers on projects they are interested in, such as replacing the roof, gutters and air conditioning units at the Steckler Multipurpose Building; renovating all of the bathrooms at McLaurin Elementary; new air conditioning units at Morgantown Elementary; and roof and gym floor repairs at the former Robert Lewis Magnet School.

In other matters during Tuesday’s meeting, the school board discussed options for either building or renovating one of its existing facilities for a new fine arts school.

With a price tag of approximately $15 million to build a new stand-alone facility or $7.2 million to add on to the new high school, school officials agreed that renovating one of the district’s existing buildings would be the best way to go.

NASD recently moved all middle school students to the new Natchez Middle School campus and placed high schoolers at the former Robert Lewis Magnet School while construction on a new high school is ongoing.

This leaves Joseph Frazier Elementary and soon Robert Lewis to be open for other uses when students occupy the new high school next fall.

However, foundational issues at Frazier would be more costly to fix, school officials said Tuesday, as they discussed possibly using Robert Lewis or the Freshman Academy school for a fine arts program instead.

The school board punted the fine arts school project to a special committee to include board members LLJuna Grennell-Weir and Phillip West; deputy superintendent Zandra McDonald-Green; Gary McCullum, who is the school district’s performing arts consultant, as well as an architect and representatives from Natchez Little Theatre and the local film industry.