School chief Price says preparing for underfunding will be tough|[6/04/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 6, 2005

It will be a tedious process to prepare the Vicksburg Warren School District budget to make up for underfunding, Dr. James Price, superintendent, said Friday.

Overall, the special session of the Mississippi Legislature that ended a week ago increased education funding statewide by 7 percent to a total of $2.2 billion – but still did not fully fund the formulas contained in 1997’s Mississippi Adequate Education Act which would have required some $78 million more.

The total translates to $750,000 less than full funding for the 9,200-student consolidated district here, but, Price said, it comes on top of shortfalls totalling $3 million over the past two years.

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The budget will include 8 percent raises for teachers, the last in a series of five years of increases ordered by the Legislature.

Price said he’s positive no terminations will occur and any reductions come in administration.

“No question, we will be able to fill our classroom teacher slots. It will just take a lot of detailed work to avoid raising ad valorem taxes,” Price said.

Schools operations are funded by a combination of state allocations plus local taxes on real estate, real property and vehicles. Many districts facing state shortfalls for the past three years have raised local tax rates to make up the difference. That has not occurred here. Instead, the district has relied on reserves and tighter budgeting for all years, including this year which had a record $72 million spending plan.

Price said 21 teachers have retired or resigned since the end of classes last month. None have since been hired to replace them. The exact number of new teachers needed will be unknown for at least a month, Price said.

School trustees are expected to present a draft budget to the public on June 16, then formulize it for the new fiscal year starting July 1.

Of the state’s 152 school districts, the district here is the sixth-largest, with its administrative costs ranking 19th from the bottom. In spite of that favorable ranking in administrative costs, Price still foresees belt-tightening.

“There won’t be any fat when we’re finished,” Price said.

The district’s elementaries are reverting to community attendance zones starting in August. Under the choice-based plan in effect for the past several years, bus rides were longer for many students. With shorter routes, there should be less fuel consumed even though record prices are expected to be paid for the fuel.