Schools delay projects amid budget trims

Northeast Mississippi school districts are delaying renovation projects, holding off on new buses and watching their general funds shrink as they adjust to the funding cuts announced last week by Gov. Haley Barbour.
Barbour cut the state’s funding of education by 5 percent, or a total of $158.3 million, because of sluggish revenue collections. On Tuesday, individual school districts were informed just how much money they would lose.
The impact was felt across Northeast Mississippi as districts that had already formalized budgets and started school years suddenly had to figure out how to replace money they were expecting.
Even districts that had anticipated the cuts have had to delay projects that could have proceed had there been no cuts.
“It is really knocking us down,” said Kathy Young Austin, superintendent of Chickasaw County Schools.
The cuts come after the state also reduced school funding during the spring. By law, Barbour cannot cut school funding any more until he makes similar 5 percent cuts to all state departments.
But with the economic forecast still uncertain, school officials were aware that more cuts could come with even greater impact.
“If we get cut any more, we will be in the red,” Austin said.
Statewide, the funding cuts for K-12 schools include $103.5 million from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and $3.46 million from Enhanced Education Funds for buildings and buses, classroom supplies and ad valorem tax reduction grants.

Affect on large districts
Lee County Schools will lose $1.59 million because of Barbour’s decision.
Business Manager Randy Thweatt said the district had anticipated a cut and set money aside. Had last week’s cuts not occurred, the district would have built new classrooms at Saltillo, Shannon and Mooreville High Schools.
The district also will have to put off a planned purchase of a driver’s education car.
The Tupelo Public School District will lose $1.65 million. That money would have been used for instructional supplies at the school level, district travel, facilities, transportation, maintenance and professional development, Superintendent Randy Shaver said.

Affect on small districts
Austin said that in a small district such as hers, Chickasaw County’s $152,102 cuts are particularly painful.
“There is not a lot of fat to cut because we don’t have a lot,” Austin said. “We are very careful with what we spend anyway.”
The district will have to delay plans to put new heating and air in a 74-year-old building that is used by fifth- through eighth-graders and to build a field for their new football team. The team currently plays all of its games on the road.
Charles Garrett, superintendent of New Albany Schools, froze hiring and non-essential spending until his district can rework its budget after learning about its $484,323 in cuts. Essential spending covers items such as contracts, heating and cooling, fuel for buses and workman’s compensation insurance.
The Oxford School District will “closely watch” items that are not absolutely necessary for classrooms, said Superintendent Kim Stasny, whose district will be cut $650,060. The district also will put off buying new buses or as many computers as it had planned.

Affect on curriculum
Baldwyn Superintendent Harvey Brooks said his district’s $211,983 loss will slow plans to reduce the student-teacher ratio in the district. Baldwyn schools had recently reached a ratio of 15 to 1 in kindergarten, and 17 or 18 to 1 in first and second grades.
That ratio is now closer to 20 to 1 now, after the district made fewer hires in anticipation of these cuts. The district also will delay the purchase of new buses and the renovation of the elementary school cafeteria.
Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said his district will have to reconsider things like additional instructional software programs, technology upgrades and increasing the number of interventionists to work with struggling students. Corinth lost $431,899.
Alcorn County School Director of Finance Angi Wilhite said that the district is able to weather its $895,779 in reductions because it had saved $1.8 million for the 2008-09 school year by eliminating several positions in order to rebuild its general fund, which had been dangerously low.
The cuts will delay Alcorn County’s efforts to rebuild that fund and to buy new buses and to upgrade facilities.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal