BY BRIAN JONES

brian.jones@packet-media.com

COLUMBUS – At its April 10 meeting, the Columbus Municipal School Board discussed funding for the upcoming school year and a volunteer program in the elementary schools. The board also honored the reading fair first place winners.

Business Officer Tammie Holmes told the board that the district was facing further funding cuts, especially from the state, in both the current fiscal year and the upcoming one.

“This is the latest report from the Mississippi Department of Education regarding the (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) funding,” she said. “The governor has made a .38 percent reduction in the MAEP allocation. That’s going to move our number from $18,851,577 down to $18,779,495 for a total reduction of about $72,000 for this year.

“We do anticipate a further reduction of our MAEP funds for the early college students who are at the (Golden Triangle Early College High School) at East Mississippi Community College,” she said. “We have not received the final deferments that were made for this current year, but we are anticipating somewhere around $140,000, maybe a little bit more.”

Between the two, Holmes said the district is facing a loss of around $200,000 in FY17.

“For the upcoming year, the full allocation for Columbus would have been $19.6 million,” she said. “However, we are only receiving about $17,912,000. That is more than $1.7 million that we’re being underfunded for this upcoming school year.

“To put that into perspective, our current allocation was $18.6 million,” she said. “After the governor’s cuts and the money that we won’t see for the GTECHS students, that leaves us $18.4 million. For FY18, the $17.9 million is the original allocation. Conservatively budgeting, because of the trends that we have seen and the cuts that come unexpectedly from the governor’s office, we have put in an average cut calculated from what we saw in FY16 and FY17. We’d rather underestimate our revenue and be fiscally conservative. For FY18 we are anticipating to lose $210,000. That is a total of $17.6 million that we will budget.

“MAEP is one of the primary ways that we are funded, and we are going to have to make some drastic budget cuts than the ones that we made last year,” she said.

Trustee Angela Verdell asked if the GTECHS cost included transportation. [The district buses its own students out to EMCC – Ed.]

“We are provided a $10,000 allocation for transportation,” Holmes said.

“That’s out of a $30,000 cost,” said Superintendent Dr. Philip Hickman. “So we are losing $20,000.”

“Is that a standard allocation they give to us based on a standard amount of students that we have attending?” asked President Jason Spears.

“It was a grant that we were promised,” Hickman said. “That’s all that they were able to get.”

“At first they weren’t going to give us anything,” Verdell said. “Then we got the $10,000, but with the budget cuts it looks like this is going to become more of an expense to transport students to and from.”

“They need to either apply for more grants or start eating the cost of transportation,” Hickman said. “They get the scores and they get the (average daily attendance) for the students.

“We originally thought we were going to work something out with the county, because they pass this area,” Hickman said. “But we were not able to re-route their buses. It’s a good conversation to revisit, though, and not just sit back”

Spears recommended exploring cost-sharing measures for the upcoming semester for GTECHS. He then asked Holmes where cuts for the upcoming fiscal year may come from.

“We don’t know,” Hickman said. “Right now we’re asking everyone to look at everything, and what programs we have, what open positions we have this year, which ones are priorities. We haven’t told any principals to hire anyone yet. About 20 positions will make up for that loss, but I am not saying that we are cutting 20 positions. We are looking at people, programs and accommodations right now. There’s no way I can honestly tell you right now.”

“If the budget cuts that we are expecting are realized, what effect will that have on our programs?” asked Trustee Currie Fisher. “How long can we sustain these programs?”

“The budget cuts are real,” Hickman said. “They are going to continue to come, especially under this administration. We looked at a lot of different variables that could adversely affect our programs. I don’t want anything I’m about to say to be taken out of context, but we were even looking at our magnet school program. Because of that we route our buses everywhere, and sometimes a bus can go into one neighborhood and another bus is coming out of the same place. It was a small enough figure that we can live with it. It was not worth eliminating the magnet school program. We are looking at all different ways to maintain the quality of education that we are giving our kids, but at the end of the day we have to make sure that we have manageable class sizes, quality people that are there interacting with our kids and that we have interventions for even smaller groups of kids. We don’t want to compromise anything, but the cuts are real. The cuts are real.”

Verdell asked how effective the magnet schools are.

“If you look at all the work that has been put in in the lower grades, and you take those students and then spread them out, we don’t know how adversely that will affect us from a ratings standpoint at different buildings,” Hickman said. “If you take the kids from Stokes-Beard and spread them out, then what would Stokes-Beard look like? It’s a B rating now. Once we build our other schools up to that level, then we can have that discussion a year or two from now.”

No action was taken.

As part of a presentation about the district’s long-term debt, Holmes said that about $2.8 million will be needed to support the debt in next year’s budget.

“We have about $2.2 million that we’re going to need for principle payments, and $523,000 for interest and $12,000 for fees,” she said. “We could see as much as a $1.2 million increase in our request to the city just to meet our debt payments for FY18.

“As a short-term fix this fiscal year we withdrew $1.2 million out of the fund balance to meet the debt cost,” she said. “Our bond attorney has advised us not to withdraw money out of the fund balance for the debt.”

The board took no action.

United Way of Lowndes County Executive Director Danny Avery, Berry Hinds and Keith Worshaim spoke to the board about Volunteer Impact Partners, which is seeking volunteers to work with children in the district.

“We are partnered with United Way to provide support people within our classrooms,” Hickman said

“This is something that Dr. Hickman and I have been talking about, and which he had talked about with my predecessor,” Avery said “Right after I came on board, this time last year, we began recruiting wonderful volunteers. We have about 10 now.

“This is modeled after the foster grandparents program, but it is localized to meet the needs of the Columbus schools,” he said. “We are looking for special individuals who have the compassion and the concern and the dedication that it requires to work with them on a continuous basis. We ask them to commit to between four and 20 hours per week in the classroom. If they want to be in one of their grandchildren or niece or nephew’s class, we try to accommodate them.

“They are there to love on the children,” Avery said. “To listen to them when they have problems, to single out and maybe give special attention to a child who is being bullied or picked on or ignored, to sense when a child is coming in to class with burdens that maybe would inhibit their learning and free the teacher up from having to deal with that individual and the loss of instructional time.”

Avery said the program’s goal was to have one volunteer in each elementary classroom, and eventually to expand out to junior high and high school.

“I hope to be able to come back perhaps this time next year when we have sponsors for each of our junior high and high school classes,” he said.

“We’re very grateful for those who volunteered,” Hickman said. “Our kids and our volunteers are getting something out of it. Some of those kids worry when the grandparent isn’t there. We are grateful because we wanted our kids to build nurturing relationships with appropriate adults. We want them to know that they’re cared for.”

No action was taken.

In other business, the district recognized reading fair first place winners. The winners were:

Kindergarten – Perry Brumfield, Franklin Academy, and Mr. Hill’s Class at Fairview Elementary.

First Grade – LaRencia Ham, Cook Elementary.

Second Grade – Madison Ford, Fairview Elementary.

Third Grade –  Kameron Johnson, Cook Elementary; Noah Montgomery, Sale Elementary; Emily Sherrod, Stokes-Beard Elementary.

Fifth Grade – Bethany Setiawan, Fairview Elementary.

Sixth Grade – LaKenzia Ham, Columbus Middle School.

Kameron Johnson was also recognized as being a second place winner at the regional reading fair.