No tax hike for schools this year|[6/15/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A thorough review of planned public school spending here means no tax increase or use of reserves despite 8 percent raises for teachers.

The draft of the Vicksburg Warren School District’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will be presented to school trustees and the public at a public hearing at 5 p.m. Thursday at the district administration building on Mission 66.

“We’re not raising taxes,” said Superintendent Dr. James Price, adding that he and other top district officials have spent at least three weeks revamping the district’s spending plan.

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But the new budget comes with a warning: The spending plan is bare bones and if the 2006 Legislature doesn’t increase the state allocation sufficiently, the local share will have to be increased through higher property taxes starting in October of that year, Price said.

The review was necessary because of a combination from the state Legislature of underfunding and mandates such as the required pay raises for teachers, Price said.

The Legislature completed its budget on May 28, leaving the VWSD about $3 million short of the funding it would have received under the funding formula of Mississippi Adequate Education Program, passed by lawmakers in 1997, but fully funded only one year.

Overall, state spending on public schools is up 7 percent, but $87 million short of the MAEP’s formulas. Raises in this year will be the last in a five-year plan ordered by lawmakers. The district also extends the raises to non-covered teachers and other district personnel.

Price and VWSD staff propose reducing the VWSD’s spending by about $7.5 million, from a spending plan for the current year of roughly $72 million, he said. And the draft budget for the coming year is different from those adopted by the district for at least the past 10 years in that budgeted revenues equal budgeted expenditures and no “carryover” funds from the previous year are budgeted, Price said.

Price completed his second year as superintendent in May and has initiated fundamental changes in the administration. The draft budget for the coming year reflects those changes while preserving the quality of the school’s basic function, he said.

“We know now where every penny goes,” he said. “We are truly holding ourselves accountable for the fiscal integrity of the district.

“It was always measured against the maxim, ‘We will do no harm to instructional programs,'” Price said of the review. “‘Everything we do must enhance the instructional programs.'”

The most comprehensive change may have been a plan that returns the assignment of elementary-school students to a plan based on attendance zones beginning when students return to school in August. Parents of students in grades K-6 have been allowed their choice of schools, limited by broader attendance zones subject to administrative balancing by race.

Price said the draft budget contains $1.3 million in savings in salaries alone, and added that about nine-tenths of that amount can be attributed efficiencies gained by the return to community schools. The staff recommends reducing by attrition the district’s employee count by 41, including about 20 in the transportation department, Price said.

“It has evolved into this over the past two years as we’ve tried to make the whole operation more efficient, more streamlined,” Price said.

Adjustments to the scheduling of the school day at some schools have also allowed for increased efficiency in transportation. And the forging of alliances with other agencies and the consolidation of nontraditional educational services into the Grove Street School building have allowed the VWSD to do more with less, Price added.

One of the programs currently operated at Grove Street, for example, was formerly housed at the former Bovina Elementary School and was attended by a maximum of 42 students, Price said. Though Grove Street serves six times as many students through 13 programs for students in grades K-12 its budget is $400,000 less than that for the former operation at Bovina, which is now closed, Price said.

“We’ve formed an alliance with the city and the county and other organizations, letting them know what our needs are and vice versa,” Price said of the Grove Street project. “They’re our children. We all must take ownership of these children.”

And ways that the district may receive more federal funding have also been identified, Price said. Services the district renders, such as speech pathology, have been identified as reimbursable under Medicaid, he said.

The review was line-by-line examination by six members of the district’s executive and financial staff of its budget, which includes about 10,000 items on 200 pages, he said.

During the review each VWSD department head or program director was asked to help examine expenses and look for economies.