The state auditor’s office has warned two financially struggli

The state auditor’s office has warned two financially struggling Northeast Mississippi school districts to keep spending in check.

Baldwyn Separate Schools and Benton County Schools both received letters after the auditor’s office found the districts were carrying over less than 5 percent of their revenue from the previous year.

Experts say financially healthy districts annually carry over between 5 and 10 percent of their general operations fund.

Statewide, 16 school districts were warned about what the department called their “weakening financial position.”

Other districts warned were: Amite County, Claiborne County, Coahoma Agricultural High School, East Jasper, George County, Hattiesburg, Hollandale, Jefferson County, Lumberton, Perry County, South Panola, Water Valley, West Jasper and Yazoo City.

The districts have been asked to provide the auditor’s office with a list of actions taken to correct financial problems by April 30.

A new state law that allows state takeovers of financially troubled school districts requires the state auditor’s office to warn and monitor school districts with problems.

Counting pennies

Baldwyn Superintendent C.L. Shelton said his district can’t be expected to carry over more than 5 percent of its total operating budget.

“Obviously, the budget is a huge concern of ours,” said Shelton, who has served as superintendent for about seven years. “But we’re a small district with a small tax base. There’s no fluff here. We’ve been told to watch our dollars, but we’re beyond that point. Right now, we’re watching our nickels, dimes and yes, even our pennies. That’s how tight things are.”

Shelton said the district is actually in better financial shape this year than in the past.

“There have been years when we have started out at a deficit for various reasons,” he said. “We generally tend to feel lucky if we manage to carry a balance over from one year to the next. In a district our size, that’s not unusual.”

In Benton County, Superintendent Ronny Wilkerson said the district intended to spend a little more than normal in an effort to meet Mississippi Department of Education requirements.

Benton County Schools landed on the department’s probation list in 1993 after a state evaluation showed its bus fleet did not meet requirements. Several other facility improvements were also recommended.

“We made the determination that we are not in this to make money,” Wilkerson said. “We spent the money to improve our accreditation (ratings). You could say we are right where we intended to be.”

The district has spent $350,000 on 10 new buses. Another $300,000 was spent on renovations at each of the district’s four schools.

Equity funding cuts

Both superintendents said cuts in equity funding also put them on shaky financial ground.

“The money fluctuates wildly from one year to the next and it’s hard to plan for,” said Shelton, whose district had spent 63.7 of total annual revenues in at the end of February. “It seems like that should be considered.”

Equity funding is money approved and appropriated by the state Legislature to school districts whose local tax bases don’t provide enough money to meet minimal per-student spending requirements.

Shelton said the board has discussed asking for a tax increase to help increase revenues next year, but he said he was hesitant to make the request.

“Our community has been very supportive up to this point,” he said. “We don’t want to put a heavier tax burden on them if we can do without. But, in a district where there are no frills, it’s hard to do without. We’re just doing the best we can.”

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