Editorial Schools face a budget crunch 7/1/2014

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Schools face a budget crunch

Public hearings for the 2014-2015 school year budgets of both the North Panola and South Panola school districts revealed the growing disconnect between the rational that the state legislature uses to fund education and the reality school trustees face as they attempt to find money to operate public schools.

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(Admittedly, budgets make for dry reading, but these words are intended to connect dots that lead back to the amount you pay in county land taxes and car tags.)

Simply put, state law and accreditation rules set standards based on school membership while the state provides funding based on attendance. The best example would be in the student/teacher ratio. To meet accreditation standards a school must have one teacher for a certain number of students depending on grade level. If the ratio is 1/30 and there  are 35 students, the district must provide another teacher.

Those two teachers are going to get paid whether all 35 students attend school every day or not. Their salaries are a fixed, an ongoing cost, as are most of the expenses to operate a school. The school must spend that money if all 35 come to school every day or if only 30 attend regularly.

State funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) is determined by average daily attendance (ADA). Funding is calculated using a set amount per pupil counted in the ADA. If a school’s ADA for the 35 students is only 30, the district gets less money even though it was required to keep both teachers on the job and incur all other costs for 35 students.

That’s membership versus attendance. 

Compounding this year’s budget problems for public school districts is a new law passed by the legislature that requires the student to attend school for 63 percent of the day in order to be counted as present. Formerly, as South Panola schools superintendent Tim Wilder told his trustees at their budget meeting, any student who attended school for any part of a day — 10 minutes or one hour — was counted as present in ADA.

The result of this new 63 percent rule is that the state reduced the amount it provides to operate the North Panola and South Panola districts as well as every other district in the state.

Here’s where it becomes something of a shell game. The legislature was able to say it had fully funded MAEP because it provided enough money per pupil to substantiate the claim. But at the same time the legislature set higher attendance requirements, lowering districts’ ADA. This actually reduced state education funding for districts across the state.

Both the NP and SP districts are at or near maximum millage in the amount of local tax millage they are allowed by law to levy on land, property and vehicle tags. (School trustees don’t levy taxes. Panola County supervisors are required to set tax millage sufficient to cover the school districts’ requests up to the maximum cap.)

When property owners complain to supervisors about high taxes, supervisors often point to how little in a county budget they have control over, starting with the schools. But the culpability of state legislators is seldom mentioned.

During next year’s statewide elections, most legislators seeking re-election will be touting that they have kept taxes low. When voters hear this, they should remember the shell game. 

While state taxes may have been kept lower, decisions by state government have pushed the burden of paying for services back to local sources — the city and county. Education funding is an excellent example.

(If you want another example, look at law enforcement. Remember when the Mississippi Highway Patrol said it no longer had a sufficient number of officers to investigate traffic accidents on state and federal highways within municipalities?)

There’s one more element that needs to be mentioned here, the idea that throwing more money at the problems in education won’t solve them. That’s not what these words are about. 

This is about unfunded and partially funded mandates from the state that local school district trustees must wrestle with from one year to the next.