New leadership at Vicksburg Warren School District aims for financial stability amid challenges

Published 10:01 am Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Dr. Tori Holloway and the district’s new Director of Finance, Kathy Hughes, met with the Warren County Supervisors on Monday to outline priorities for their administration.

Holloway, a Gulfport native, said the VWSD is his “seventh and final school district,” adding that he hopes to be the district’s top man for at least the next seven or eight years. He thanked the supervisors for their warm welcome, adding his commitment to visibility in the community.

“I’ve been in places where the superintendent was not welcome in these types of settings, so I appreciate it, and you will continue to see this smile for a long time, whether you like it or not,” Holloway said. “I’ll be here and be visible. I’ll go to churches and spread the gospel of the Vicksburg Warren School District.”

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Financial Awareness

Hughes stated that while she is aware of “some issues” in the district when it comes to finances, she and Holloway are committed to working together to solve them.

“We do have some issues when it comes to finances, but Dr. Holloway and I will work together so that the district can remain intact,” Hughes said. “That is an ongoing situation, so our goal is to see how we can leverage some federal funding to supplement the needs of the students as well as the district so we can be financially stable for the next several years.

“We do have some goals in terms of making sure we have a fund balance that will sustain the operation if we have a major situation that should occur,” she added. “Our goal is to, again, sit down and determine the needs of the district to determine how to plan out the maintenance needs for all of the buildings we have in the district.”

Holloway, who was hired in May after the retirement of former superintendent Chad Shealy, said he would like to sit down and talk with the supervisors to ensure he fully understands the county’s financial situation as a whole and how it relates to VWSD.

Board Vice President Dr. Jeff Holland agreed, adding that the county has one major project in the works: a new jail complex.

“There are a number of things that we probably should eventually sit and talk about. You need to know that we are on the precipice of building a jail for this county,” Holland said. “That’s in the works and is imminent. There is financial activity going on to where we’re right in the throes of discussing how we would finance such a thing, initial design has begun, initial site preparation has begun.

“The financing of the (school district’s) $80 million-plus bond issue was an important facet of how debt is going to be handled in this county for many years to come,” he added.

End of ESSER

One obstacle is the impending end of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which are American Relief Plan funds allocated to school districts by the federal government. According to VWSD’s 2023-24 budget proposal, ESSER funds will make up 19 percent of the district’s budget this year before the funds run out in June 2024.

A portion of the district’s ESSER funds, which were allocated in 2021, went toward funding 22 jobs in the district. A portion of the positions, including career coaches and interventionists, were designed to last for three years, but the 10 school nurses hired were supposed to be permanent positions.

All of the positions were designed to sustain the operation of schools and address the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on VWSD students.

Hughes confirmed Monday that there was no federal replacement for ESSER funds, but did not state whether the 22 positions hired with ESSER funds would continue or be eliminated.

Holloway said the district is in the process of forming a new five-year strategic plan.

“If we do anything (with special projects) it’ll be small, nothing large. We’ll focus on the ACT, but that’s not a huge investment, just getting resources for teachers and kids,” Holloway said. “No large projects; that’s why we’ve talked about planning for the future. I may be gone seven or eight years from now, I hope not, but that plan will be in place and we’ll set monies aside to fund them.

“We’re at our max on millage rate, and the taxpayers are burdened enough, so we have to be creative on how we fund things,” he added.

Another issue the district will examine in the coming months and include in the new five-year plan, Hughes said, is funding ongoing building maintenance.

“Of course, the bond issue was substantially large, but there were some areas that were not addressed when you look at the different buildings,” she said. “So we will need to sit down and plan as it relates to maintenance and making sure each of the buildings is intact and that they are suitable for students to arrive and obtain their education every day.”

Economic Development: The Chicken and the Egg

During the meeting, Holland also expressed his desire to see VWSD continue on the upward trajectory it’s maintained for the last five years.

Holloway confirmed that school accountability scores were in and “look promising,” although he declined to reveal what the letter grade was.

Better schools mean more opportunities, Holland said, which opens the door for more community advancement from an economic standpoint.

“The topside part of the millage issue is that we don’t want to put ourselves in a position of becoming a disincentive for economic development,” Holland said. “We want to do everything, right? We want to have the best school district we can have, which of course has all kinds of implications. If you look at where the good school systems are in the state, they also correlate directly with who has decent economic development activity going on.

“It’s hard to tell which one of those is the chicken and which is the egg, they both go together so strongly,” he added. “… You’ve alluded to something that it is going to take all of us to do, and that is to change the minds of our local people about the school system.”