The Hazlehurst City School District’s budget request includes a four percent increase for operations. But because the county’s valuation has gone down this year, the district officials pointed out, they have only requested four percent. Initially, officials expected to ask for the full seven percent allowed by law.
Schools statewide have seen a very large reduction in state funding. Hazlehurst has been filling the gap with grant funds and timber sales. Since the state takeover of the district in 2008, the deficits have been cleared and the district is now building fund balances where there used to be problems.
“We’ve been very lucky the two years we’ve been here not to raise taxes,” said Suzanne Smith, state-appointed financial advisor. “But we can’t use federal money or School Improvement money to offset these funds that have been cut.”
State Conservator Glenn Swan added that they are likely to see another cut in state funding before Thanksgiving. District officials took that into consideration in forming the budget – they reduced the projected amount of state funding by ten percent in their calculations, hoping to absorb any further cuts that way, by not budgeting that amount in the first place.
The exact dollar amount of tax increase expected for Hazlehurst residents is not known at this time as the millage rate has not yet been set. The school conservator planned to meet again on August 3 to approve the proposed budget, which will then be sent to the city aldermen.
The proposed budget includes a four percent increase in operations as well as an increase in debt service millage. District officials reviewed the revenues and expenditures in six general funds and 33 special revenue funds during the budget hearing last Tuesday evening for a small group of citizens.
GRANTS SUPPLEMENTING BUDGET
A huge portion of the district’s revenue this year will come from federal funds, business manager Amber Geiser pointed out.
Grants are helping the district restore some lost teacher assistant positions, although they are not being called teacher assistants. The ARRA funds, part of a three year grant, will provide “tutors” in K-3 classes.
Although they are called tutors, they will meet all of the qualifications for assistant teachers, Swan assured the parents. “We are getting them in under a different funding umbrella,” explained Swan.
A citizen inquired if these positions would remain after the ARRA funds run out in three years. “We hope we will be able to keep the components that work,” said Swan. “We hope we will be able to sustain that.” But officials expect the budget situation to be grim for the next few years – not only in Hazlehurst but for all schools.
School Improvement Grants, a three-year federally funded program, are also helping the Hazlehurst schools tremendously in the next budget year. Hazlehurst High School received $3,750,000 while Hazlehurst Middle School received $4,127,067. Out of 87 schools in Mississippi that applied, only eight grants were awarded, with Hazlehurst receiving two. The district is still waiting for spending authority to fill positions covered by these funds.
Additional funds were allocated to Hazlehurst because the schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals for two years in a row. The Middle School is in Year 2 and the High School in Year 1 of School Improvement. The elementary receives more funding because there are more students on that campus. The district receives funds to provide supplemental services such as tutoring because of School Improvement status and the lack of school choice in the district.
The Hazlehurst schools are also receiving assistance from Barksdale Reading Institute, which is funding an administrator’s position, beautification on the elementary campus, and other projects. The district has partnered with Friends of Mississippi as well to provide a better pre-K program.
The Enhancing Education Through Technology program has provided equipment for the district through its grant program as well. Dr. Abby Webley, federal programs director for the district, pointed out that there was no money budgeted at all for equipment in the federal programs portion of the budget because the district has received so much new equipment through grants that they do not anticipate needing any more this school year.
Despite the budget cuts, the district plans improvements. The Parent Center will provide computer stations for parents as well as much reading material with the aim of beefing up literacy. “We are focused on increasing literacy and helping parents help kids at home,” said Webley. According to test results, Hazlehurst students are struggling in reading, math, and language arts, so extra resources will be made available to remedy these issues.
Questions asked by citizens at the budget hearing included pupil/teacher ratio, the use of substitutes in classrooms, and the need for new buses. District officials responded that the pupil/teacher ratio is expected to be about 24 to 25 as a district-wide average. All teachers hired will be highly qualified, Swan replied. He also acknowledged the difficulty of finding certified substitute teachers in all school districts, not just in Hazlehurst, but he said they do not anticipate the long-term use of subs in any classrooms this year. Almost all of the vacant positions had been filled by last week, and all were expected to be filled by the start of school. No new buses are planned to be purchased this year with the possible exception of a special education bus.
“We probably won’t be buying new buses this year, but we will definitely have to look at bus replacement in the next budget year,” Swan said.
Fewer than ten members of the public were present for the Hazlehurst schools budget hearing last Tuesday evening. The budget proposal was approved by the conservator at a separate meeting August 3 and will be sent to the city for inclusion in the annual budget process.