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Schools to cut spending, not seek tax hike

[6/11/04]Public schools here will cut spending instead of raising local taxes to make up for a lower-than-needed allocation by the state.

“After looking at all options, we realized we could tighten our belts, assume some new responsibilities and not compromise the quality of our educational programs,” said Superintendent James Price on Thursday.

The comment came after the first budget work meeting with the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees.

Price made the recommendation after a budget proposal from the district’s chief financial officer, Dale McClung.

“No one wants to see taxes go up,” said District 3 Trustee Betty Tolliver. “We don’t want to put the hardship on anyone else.”

When the Legislature adjourned last month, district officials estimated the state allocation for the year starting July 1 would be about $2 million less than needed to meet state requirements for teacher pay and other programs.

At the time, Price and McClung said they expected trustees would have to ask the Warren County Board of Supervisors, which formally sets tax rates, for a larger allocation.

This year’s spending plan for the 9,000-student district was $63 million with about 33 percent provided locally from taxes on real estate, personal property and vehicles.

In the compromise that ended the regular session, lawmakers allocated 95 percent of the amount sought by K-12 schools statewide, but lifted the stipulation that districts keep a 5 percent reserve.

Price said he and other administrators have come up with cost-saving ideas.

“This is a very ambitious plan of attack,” Price said. “Many of these things have been in the works for months and needed to be done anyway.”

The district’s plans include:

Not filling positions vacated through attrition;

Cutting transportation costs between 15 and 20 percent by limiting mechanics to a 40-hour work week;

Designing bus routes and procedures to be more efficient in an effort that will save the district between $150,000 and $200,000 on fuel;

Saving nearly $119,000 on construction and repair work by having the district serve as a general contractor and hiring a subcontractor. For previous projects, the district has hired a general contractor, who in turn, hires the subcontractor at double the cost to the district;

Starting “community pickup,” which would allow buses to pick up all students who live in a neighborhood at the same time. Price said administrators would try this in a section of Vicksburg and Warren County next year. He said it could save the district up to $500,000.

Launching programs to deter students and teachers from missing school. Schools are given state funding based on daily attendance for students, and the district must pay $50 for a substitute teacher. Also, expelled students will now be required to attend Grove Street School. Those students will now be counted as in attendance.

Cutting the number of days that certified staff works from 187 days to 185. The two-day difference would save the district about $300,000.

Price said that by taking these steps, the district could save an estimated $2 million. However, he said that is just an estimate and, until programs and changes are in place, the total savings would be unknown.

“It should be in that range, but anything can happen,” he said. “We might not be able to save all of the projected monies discussed, but even if we save half, look what we’ve done.”

For the current budget year, schools were fully funded early in the legislative term, a fact attributed to 2003 being an election year.

For the previous year, it also appeared the local district would experience a shortfall, but the increase in tax rates was not as large as initially predicted.