Challenges Still Ahead for Columbus Municipal School District

Dr. Liddell Comments Candidly After School Board Meeting

The funding appropriation, as signed by the Governor, provides Mississippi Adequate Education Funding (MAEP) that is “close to level”, except for the fact that the increases to the retirement system will be passed on to MS school districts. Also, overall funding for the state’s school districts has declined, over the past four years; because the state’s education budget is taking the brunt of state budget cuts.

As noted by Anthony Brown, Columbus schools assistant superintendent for Federal Programs, the federal government requires that school districts budget at 85 of the previous year’s budge figure, each year. However, over the past ten years, Columbus Schools has received 95-110 percent of the past year’s budget amount in federal allocations. Because this positive federal funding trend is expected to continue, school officials are confident that the district will have more than sufficient dollars to pay the salaries of RIF-impacted teachers that are being rehired through federal programs (Title I, Title II and special education funds) in the coming year

Based upon a thorough assessment of the district’s state allocation, it has been determined that, of the 49 RIF-impacted teachers being rehired, 30 of them are MAEP-funded, with the remaining 19 being funded by a combination of Title I, Title II and special education dollars (federal funds).

According to Dr. Liddell, the district has been earnest in finding ways to trim their budget. The district took into serious consideration the recommendation provided by Bonnie Granger, in July, in which she analyzed the district’s budget and personnel load, in consultation with the district’s CFO and Dr. Liddell, and proposed that the district cut 30 positions from its budget, to bring expenditures back in line with revenues. Liddell indicated that this has been successfully accomplished, this year, through hard work and due diligence. In addition, the district has cut four administrative positions across the district, including two central office positions and two assistant principal positions, saving the district over $350,000. The district is currently evaluating the feasibility of additional administrative and athletic cut-backs, where there is the potential to realize another $250,000 in administrative savings. At this time, two athletic coaching positions have been cut, with more coming, potentially, over the summer.

Dr. Liddell believes that the district’s instructional programs cannot bear the brunt of all cost savings and be expected to increase student achievement significantly over the next four years, a goal that she is advocating in a new “Believe and Achieve Strategic Plan” that she plans to present to the Board of Trustees for consideration.

Athletic supplements and other supplements that were being paid in the district by past administration, have been cut deeply and fairly to balance the budget. Total cuts for next year’s budget will result in excess of 2 million dollars in cost savings. This does not include planned cuts to the district’s operational budgets, in June, where Liddell is looking at more cost-effective ways to run buildings for next year.

As reported at Monday night’s CMSD Board meeting, by the district’s CFO, Kenneth Hughes, the Ad Valorem dollars requested for this year are doing what they are intended to do, which is to fund the district’s local budget. The amount of ad valorem tax dollars that the district is scheduled to receive this year is on target, and Liddell said “I expect to keep a level local budget, as well, for next year.”

Dr. Liddell expressed that she keenly aware of the impact of tax increases on the local economy. “I realize, from meetings with the county tax assessor and with Joe Higgins at the LINK, earlier this spring, that the local economy for the city of Columbus is extremely fragile, now. We have difficulty recruiting new business and there are established businesses that could, potentially, close, all of which have a direct impact on the value of a mill for the school district.” She continued, saying “I believe the worst thing we could do, now, as an educational system, is to put an additional tax burden on businesses located in the city and on homeowners, each of whom could easily pack up and leave or buy homes in the county. As she stated in last night’s school board meeting, Liddell believes that any short term gain from raising taxes could be devastating in the long-run, if other businesses close, as Omnova and Sears have done. “In my humble opinion, no one wins when taxpayers frustrated with rising taxes leave the city limits.”

Dr. Liddell went on to say, “As a district leader, my first priority is to make the district’s budget much more cost efficient and much more responsive to the needs of our students. If we do this well, we can make better use of the tax dollars we already have and live within our means. My goal is to continue to cut any waste and duplication of services in the district’s budget. I’m committed to supporting teachers and schools and running high quality athletic programs by staff members pulling together and taking on more responsibility.”

Liddell stated that, in light of a declining state and local economy, as well as with the realization that charter schools will likely be approved, next year, fiscally responsible districts are making the necessary budget adjustments this year rather than waiting for the other shoe to drop. Columbus Schools is preparing, now, for the future of education in MS, all while striving to realize better student achievement results. She feels that the bottom line is that if students are not achieving at a high level, school districts aren’t getting the job done.

“No amount of talking and glamour will get the district off ‘Academic Watch’, in the state’s accountability system. It will take a student achievement improvement plan and dedication, to accomplish that,” said Liddell.

Dr. Liddell understands that there is no substitute for quality teachers and a great principal in every building, to lead student achievement to higher levels. For that reason, she has chosen to invest in teachers and will recommend that the district hire back the 49 RIF-impacted teachers for next year, in an effort to keep class sizes down, as much as possible, going forward. She wants to remind everyone that the funds required to accomplish his are the result of cuts non-instructional areas.

Dr. Liddell also implored the community to become more involved in the educational system, saying “Columbus needs to get behind student achievement, or our city will suffer for it, in the future. Education is still the great equalizer in our nation.”

Special Note: Despite the fact that they are entering into some tumultuous times, the CMSD Board voted 3-2 to not renew the contract of board attorney David Dunn, and instead, open a search for a new board attorney.

This could be very interesting.

JBS

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