Mississippi Schools Are Bracing for Funding 'Crisis'

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Mississippi school officials, already thrown for a loss this year by the legislature's failure to fund a school-reform plan and by the sudden sharp rise in gasoline prices, last week braced for even more bad news as a state revenue shortfall left Gov. Ray Mabus preparing to order about $30 million in budget cuts.

The budget crunch led school administrators to tell teachers--who did not get raises this year after lawmakers and the Governor could not agree how to pay for the reform plan--and parents that districts will do well to make it through this school year without personnel cuts or even bankruptcies.

"It is definitely a crisis and is some thing that's going to impact the quality of education," said Gordon Walker, superintendent of the Hattiesburg schools and president of the Mississippi Council of Public Schools.

In Hattiesburg, school officials have frozen spending. In a newsletter distributed along with teachers' paychecks last week, Mr. Walker wrote that even without further cuts, the district will have to make up for the expected loss of more than $600,000 in state aid.

Across Mississippi, district officials are preparing for a 5 percent in state aid, which would cause belt-tightening in districts like Hattiesburg and could force bankruptcies and layoffs in several systems already operating with a deficit.

Larry Drawdy, superintendent of the Meridian schools, said a 5 percent cut in state aid--which he said many school officials believe is al most inevitable--would be "devastating" to many districts.

"It is the school people's belief that the deficit is quite large and no one can anticipate what will happen in the next few months," Mr. Drawdy said.

Governor Mabus last week assured school officials that education cuts would be a last resort, and aides said the reductions, which were scheduled to be announced late last week, would spare most basic school aid.

In an effort to soften the impact of the shortfalls, Mr. Mabus has decided to base his cuts on monthly revenue reports, ordering new rounds of reductions each month until the economic picture improves or the legislature, scheduled to convene in January, can find revenue alternatives.

But school programs account for about 60 percent of the state budget. So while education may duck the first set of cutbacks, it may not be able to do so in the future.

Educators, who began the school year disappointed by the reform bill's fate, are growing even more frustrated by the bleak economic outlook, said Andy Mullins, assistant to the state superintendent.

"There's still the possibility that some contracts will have to be cut this year before school's out," Mr. Mullins said. "All of that uncertainty is causing problems."

Addressing the shortfall in local transportation budgets, some educators have discussed the idea of moving to a four-day school week in an effort to conserve gasoline, should its cost rise above $1.50 a gallon. Although that idea remains on the back burner, officials said the fiscal situation may very well mean stagnant teacher salaries for the 1991- 92 school year.

Mr. Walker said the fact that the legislature will not convene until Jan. 8 will give school officials little time to repair the funding problems suffered during this school year.

"The Governor needs to call a special session and put all of the revenue measures on the table and allow the legislature to make a decision,'' Mr. Walker said. "The problem with waiting until January is that if the legislature were to pass some sort of revenue enhancement and began collecting it, there would only be four months left in our fiscal year."

Mr. Walker added that by making relatively small cuts from month to month, Governor Mabus also leaves school officials less room to maneuver.

"The earlier the cuts come, the better able we are to deal with them' he said.

Bonnie P. Teater, president of the Mississippi Congress of Parents and Teachers, said the impact of the revenue shortfall may pro vide a breaking point for education advocates.

While her organization has been reluctant to suggest school-funding options, she said, "We're about to come out and say that at any cost, we want education funding in Mississippi."

Ms. Teater noted, however, that 1991 is an election year in Mississippi, so legislators may be especially reluctant to approve tax increases.

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