Analysis: Schools' money won't be swiftly restored

By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press

As Mississippi’s legislators continue to wrangle over how much money will be restored to K-12 public education, school district leaders have moved ahead with cost-saving plans.

And that’s a good idea, according to the chairmen of the education committees in the House and Senate. It doesn’t look as if any money is going to be quickly restored to the public education budget.

Four rounds of budget cuts ordered by Gov. Haley Barbour have reduced K-12 spending by about $205 million. The governor announced the latest round of reductions last week. Barbour said the state’s lagging revenue collections have given him little choice in the matter.

Barbour said he “suspects” the state’s revenue collections will be $500 million below estimates by the time the fiscal year ends June 30. He has reduced what started as a nearly $6 billion overall spending plan by $458 million.

The governor said the reductions he’s ordered for Mississippi’s 152 school districts are a “fraction” of public education’s $4.2 billion budget, which is made up of federal, state and local money.

Officials in education and other state agencies knew the money they were appropriated at the beginning of the fiscal year would likely take a hit. Barbour and lawmakers had been bemoaning the recession’s impact for more than a year.

Undoubtedly, some agencies were hoping lawmakers might vote to give some of the money back after the session began last month.

The House and the Senate have each passed bills that attempt to restore a small portion of the money Barbour has cut. The House has proposed taking $50 million from the state’s rainy day fund and $50 million from the health care trust fund. The House plan would restore $43.4 to public education.

The Senate approved a bill last week that would take money from the health care trust fund to put more than $28 million back in the education budget. Another $30 million would be spread across 18 other agencies and programs.

The two chambers will have to find common ground, and it’s unclear how long that would take.

“If I were a school superintendent, I would make cuts now,” Brown said.

The Democrat from Jackson said he has been fielding calls from school officials who want to know what steps they can take legally to operate within the shrunken budget.

“They can’t lay off teachers because of the contracts. They can’t furlough. They can’t cut local supplements. They can’t shorten the school year,” Brown said. “Some are looking at cutting teacher assistants. That’s the main thing I heard.”

Some districts could take a cue from DeSoto County, the largest school district in the state. The district is in a fast-growing area near the Tennessee border. Officials there recently voted to reduce the salaries of school district employees, including Superintendent Milton Kuykendall, who was earning about $158,000 annually. Kuykendall will take a 10 percent cut and the other employees’ salaries will be reduced by about 8 percent.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Videt Carmichael, a Republican from Meridian, said school districts still must find a way to maintain quality instruction while implementing cost savings.

Carmichael said he had hoped lawmakers could reach an accord on restoring education funds sooner rather than later, “but knowing the process, I didn’t expect it.”