By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden is defending his stewardship of the Amory School District after drawing criticism from the head of a local foundation.
Monroe County’s Gilmore Foundation recently provided the Amory district with a $178,000 grant to keep it out of financial difficulty. Loden was Amory’s superintendent for three years before taking over the Tupelo district in June 2012.
Gilmore Foundation Executive Director Danny Spreitler said the grant was needed to prevent the district from having a negative fund balance. He said poor management led to the problem and specifically blamed Loden specifically and previous superintendents generally for leaving current superintendent Tony Cook in a difficult situation.
“A superintendent is paid to manage, not just to manage teachers and buildings but also paid to manage money,” Spreitler said.
Loden said Amory both increased local funding and cut spending during his tenure, noting financial challenges predated his leadership.
Amory’s millage rate of 27 mills is well below many districts, meaning it is receiving less money in local taxes. The maximum is 55 mills, which Tupelo receives. Amory also was underfunded about $4 million by the state during the last four years, Loden said.
Spreitler said Amory taxpayers would be willing to pay more money if asked to do so and that Loden should have made more cuts.
The district increased its request for local tax money during each of Loden’s three years – raising the ad valorem request by 4 percent during each of his first two years and by 7 percent during his final year. Those increases in dollars did not raise the millage rate because property values also rose. Loden said he did not feel he could ask for greater increases because of the economic climate.
“How much do you want to put on the taxpayers when the economy is fragile?” he said.
Loden said the district eliminated nine positions through attrition. During his second year, he presented to the board a list of potential cuts and savings of up to $572,410.04 and said most of them were implemented. He said it was difficult to cut more because the district was also trying to raise student achievement. The district was ranked Academic Watch, or the fourth of seven levels, when Loden started and rose to High Performing, the second highest.
Meanwhile, Loden said, the Tupelo district is in good financial shape. Its fund balance was $12 million when he started, he said, and cost-cutting measures during the past year grew that balance to $16 million, or 16.3 percent of its budget.