School board members debate need for tax increase

For a while this past Thursday, it looked like the New Albany school district might not have a budget as of July 1.

Although a public hearing on the proposed city school district budget went smoothly, formal passage of the budget appeared in jeopardy at Thursday’s board meeting.

The point of contention was the request for a four-percent increase in the budget, which would bring in an additional $142,000 (a figure of $103,000 was quoted in an earlier news story).

Trustee Matt Harris said, “$142,000 is nothing – it’s not even one percent of the budget. I am against asking for that. I am not supporting the tax increase.”

Trustee Brad Clayton agreed and they suggested the money could be found some other way than through a tax increase, which comes with its political implications.

Trustee Bernice Bailey moved to accept the budget but there was no second as the discussion stalled.

“If we have no budget, we cannot spend after July 1,” Superintendent Jackie Ford pointed out. “We have to approve a budget. We have until August 15 for a tax increase request.”

Eventually, trustee Jill Shaw seconded, but confusion over the proposed increase still appeared to be present. “Our job is to manage it (the budget) and be as frugal as we can,” Clayton said. “I’m not going to do it.”

“I’m not afraid of the four percent – and I’m the only one elected,” board president Jerry Tate responded.

Finally approval of the budget passed – by a bare three-to-two vote with Harris and Clayton opposing and Shaw, Bailey and Tate in favor.

Again, Superintendent Ford assured the trustees that passage of the budget does not commit the board to a tax increase at this time; they have until mid-August to find some other way to get the money (although President Tate strongly assured others there is no other place in the budget to find it).

“We will not make a tax request to the city until August,” Ford said, again.

Technically, school boards do not ask for a tax increase or decrease at all. Under the law, they only request a specific dollar amount and it is up to the city or county board to calculate the number of mills required to bring in that dollar amount.

The total budget as approved will be for about $21.6 million. Approximately 57 percent of the school funds come from state sources, 29 percent local and 14 percent federal. Nearly three-quarters of the district expense is for salaries and benefits, 11 percent for instructional supplies and equipment, eight percent for transportation and maintenance, seven percent for debt service and three percent for food service.

Director of Finance Suzanne Coffey was quoted in an earlier story as saying this was the first time in the past 12 years the city separate district has asked for a percentage increase. The need this year was attributed to the state legislature’s failure to allocate the required funds to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

Of course the budget can be, and often is, amended throughout the fiscal year anyway.

It appeared almost certain that the increase and whether it involves a tax hike will come up at the August board meeting.