Pontotoc city schools face budget woes

PONTOTOC – Pontotoc City Schools have often squeezed dollars harder than many other districts.
The district has a history of producing Level 5 schools while ranking in the bottom quarter of the state’s 152 districts in terms of spending per student.
Now, though, the district faces a challenge just in budgeting for the necessities.
District Business Manager Beverly Anderson said that when downtown Pontotoc was thriving and the city’s factories were humming, the district got sufficient funds each year from school taxes without increasing the tax rate.
Within the last several years, though, numerous industries have closed, and Wal-Mart closed its old location and opened a new Supercenter inside the city limits but in the Pontotoc County School District. As a result, the value of a mill in the district has decreased.
“We have a 55-mill cap on what we can request, and because of all these closings, we have hit that 55-mill cap,” Anderson said. “We’re concerned that the new officials still may not realize how severe the situation is.”
The value of a mill – the levy that would generate $1 in taxes for each $1,000 in assessed property value – in the Pontotoc City School District went down in academic year 2007-08. A long-delayed reappraisal upped the mill’s value last year, but it will be down again this year.
Adam Pugh, the district’s new superintendent, says new taxes aren’t the answer.
“I think a referendum would be voted down very strongly,” he said. “People are losing jobs, and they can’t afford more money. I don’t think that would be wise on our part to ask for more.”
Pugh added that districts across the state have already been warned to expect mid-year cuts in state funding if economic forecasts continue downward.
Pontotoc residents who have learned of the city schools’ fiscal challenges have questioned building a new band hall. Anderson said the funds for it had been saved over several years to meet a dire need for more academic space.
“It’s not just a band hall,” she said. “It also incorporates 10 classrooms.”
If the city’s loss of tax base is not reversed in a few years, the district might face consolidation.
“Within 10 years, if the trend continues, the Pontotoc City School District may not continue to exist,” Anderson said. “The county schools may have to take it over.”
Pontotoc County School District Superintendent Kenneth Roye could not be reached for comment.
In 2007-08, Pontotoc City Schools enrolled 2,260 students with a budget of $18,469,389.93. Pontotoc County Schools had a budget of $24,503,033.80 for 3,290 students.
While Pugh and Anderson emphasized that parents and students have strong emotional ties to the city district, some state leaders, including former Gov. William Winter and former state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, who is now state commissioner of higher education, have actually recommended consolidating districts.
The state’s Task Force on Underperforming Schools and School Districts recommended that the Legislature study “the value of school district consolidation” not only for its possible impact on underperforming schools but for cost savings even in well-performing districts, such as Pontotoc’s.
Mississippi has 152 school districts in 82 counties. At one end of the scale, Bolivar County has six districts – each with its own administration and transportation system, among other shareable costs – with a total enrollment last fall of 6,859 students.
At the other extreme, DeSoto County, the 32nd fastest-growing county in the nation, operates a single school district that last September enrolled 29,886 students.

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com. Read his blog at www.NEMS360.com.

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal