Mississippi school system spends $13M in savings in 4 years

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COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — A northeast Mississippi school district is looking at spending cuts after burning through $13 million in savings in the last four years.

The Commercial Dispatch reports the Lowndes County school district has been overspending revenue since at least 2014, with most of the money going to capital projects that Superintendent Lynn Wright says weren't budgeted.

The 5,500-student district expects a $2.5 million deficit in the budget ending June 30, projecting it will only have about $4 million in the bank by then.

"We just spent more than we took in," district Business Manager Kenneth Hughes said. "... This is the very last year we can do it."

Earlier this school year, cracks began to show in the district's financial health when board members approved borrowing $2.5 million in November to make payroll, a loan paid back with property tax collections received in February.

By late March, Wright was crafting a plan to save about $4.5 million in the budget beginning July 1, mostly by cutting 60 teaching positions districtwide. The school board's first move was to decline to renew contracts for first-year teachers. The district hopes to rehire as many as possible to fill vacancies from resignations and retirements.

The state recommends districts have at least 7.5% percent of its total revenue in reserves, commonly called a fund balance. With a $60 million operating budget, $4 million would at that threshold. Local policy calls for a 15% balance.

Lowndes County hasn't raised its property tax rate since 1999, even as it has run deficits while paying off $44 million that voters approved borrowing in 2015 at the rate of $3 million a year. Instead, the district has looked to new revenue from businesses that had received tax abatement deals.

Property tax revenue has increased, climbing from $14.8 million in 2016-17 to $19.6 million in 2017-18 before dipping to $18.7 million in the current year.

Some board members, like Brian Clark, are considering a tax increase as an option for next school year.

"Taxpayers could likely see an increase," Clark said. "But we have to look at the numbers come budget time."

However, property tax revenues are projected to rise over the next two years as more abatements expire. Wright hopes a combination of revenue increases and spending cuts can stop the bleeding.

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com


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