‘We are not raising taxes’: Vicksburg-Warren School District says local school taxes will not be raised this year

Published 3:37 pm Friday, June 18, 2021

Following community pushback due to the language of a recent display advertisement, the Vicksburg Warren School District board of trustees used their Thursday budgetary hearing to reiterate one thing: School taxes will not be raised for the upcoming academic year.  

Board president James Stirgus, Jr., began the hearing by clarifying the school board’s position as it related to the ad, which the school district is required by law to publish and in which the language may not be altered, as required by Mississippi Code Section 27-39-207.  

The ad, which notified the public of the budgetary hearing, said in part, “The proposed request may cause an increase in the ad valorem millage rate.” 

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“Like many board members, I have received calls about taxes going up, and I want to make something extremely clear, transparent, obvious and, just like this glass of water, you can see straight through it. … The taxes are not going up,” Stirgus said. “I think this is where people got a little confused and assumed that the taxes were going to go up.  

“We can’t word it any differently, we can’t say, ‘Your taxes are not going up.’ We have to word it by the Mississippi code and use the words ‘may increase.’ Our phones blew up when we put this in the paper. We’ve been putting this same notice every year,” he said. 

In fact, Stirgus said in his opening statement, due to an increase in federal funding for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the school district is asking for less funding from Warren County taxpayers than last school year — approximately $74,000 less.  

The funding, which will be distributed to school districts across the country, falls under Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER. ESSER funds represent 29 percent of the school district’s total budgeted revenue for the 2021-22 school year, or $36,342,624.85. 

The district is advertising for 27.5 additional staff positions, 22 of which are fully funded under ESSER, including nurses in each school, additional interventionists at some schools, additional non-instructional staff and nine non-athletic instructional coaches. These positions are meant to aid VWSD in correcting “learning loss” due to the pandemic’s impact on education. 

“This money is really meant to help us bridge the gap caused by the pandemic, so in essence, it should be used for health-related issues,” board secretary Bryan Pratt said. “In my understanding, it should be used for educational after-school programs, for summer activities or programs that help catch a child up who might be falling behind due to the pandemic.” 

The district spent the past year identifying learning loss in order to determine what areas need to be supplemented through ESSER funds, Pratt said.  

The ESSER-funded positions are meant to be in place for a total of 36 months, or three years. It is unclear at the moment whether the positions will remain after that time period has passed, something board vice president Sally Bullard addressed. 

“If we’ve got only 22 positions that are being paid for out of federal funds, then we’re saving, out of the district’s money, that 22 positions in finances,” Bullard said. “If we were smart, maybe we could save a little of that money so when the 36 months were up, we’ve got some money in the hole that we can then use and continue to pay these people.” 

MAEP underfunded for another year 

Another issue presented by the VWSD board of trustees is the continuous underfunding of education by the Mississippi State Legislature through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP.  

MAEP was first implemented in 1997, and since then has never been fully funded by the state. In terms of VWSD, the district has been underfunded by $31,167,022. For the upcoming fiscal year alone, the state of Mississippi will underfund VWSD by $4.1 million.  

“(The state) used the MAEP formula to determine how much it would take to fund an adequate education for each child. Not a great education, not a superior education — it’s enough,” Pratt said. “Look in the dictionary at what the word ‘adequate’ means. They have underfunded education by that much, to even provide an adequate education based on a formula they created.” 

Additional budget items and millage rates 

The total projected revenue for the 2021-22 school year for VWSD is $125 million. That amount factors in every aspect of maintaining the school educating students and providing additional services, including:  

  • Instruction $44,754,376.50 (52 percent of overall budget) 
  • Support Services $30,784,365.76 (36 percent of overall budget) 
  • Non-Instructional Services $3,763,842.89 (4 percent of overall budget) 

In addition to federal funds, the school district has allocated funds to replace three old school busses in its fleet of 133 with three new air-conditioned school busses. According to Pratt, a school bus costs the district between $80,000 and $100,000. The majority of school busses in the VWSD fleet are not air-conditioned, and the district requests three new busses every school year. 

In terms of millage rates, which are not set by the school district but are instead set by the Warren County Board of Supervisors, the school district must request a specific dollar amount based on the ad valorem tax rate.   

The ad valorem tax effort discussed and advertised is the district’s estimate based on the available information. Forces outside the district come together to determine what the final millage rate will be, and the final millage rate will be higher or lower based on final assessed valuation and homestead exemption, but cannot exceed 55 mills. The current school maintenance millage rate in Warren County is 55 mills, with an added school debt bond issue of 13.19 mills. 

In terms of millage rates, school taxes represent 68.19 mills out of 117.77 mills for Warren County taxpayers.