Education cuts equal higher property taxes

State legislators' recommendation, contrary to their own formula, to not fully fund education will result in a shortfall of millions of dollars in education funding on the Coast. It's predicted the shortfall will lead to additional teacher shortages, infrastructure failures and property-tax increases.

Legislators devised the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in 1997. It spelled out a formula that produces a base student cost -- the amount required to provide each student with an adequate education in a Mississippi school. Legislators have fully funded education in accordance with the formula only twice since then, both times in election years.

Education in the upcoming school year will be underfunded by $172 million statewide, pending the likely signature of Gov. Phil Bryant, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education. Locally, Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Gulfport, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Long Beach, Ocean Springs and Pass Christian school districts are on pace to be underfunded more than $22.2 million for the school year that will start in August.

Over the last eight years, the total shortfall for these schools is more than $250 million, according to the MAEP formula.

As a result, many educators say they've taken education funding into their own hands. But taxpayers may not like how it will be done.

Many area superintendents said they've been forced to raise millage rates, which boosts property taxes.

Ocean Springs, Long Beach, Pass Christian and Jackson County officials are among those who are at their millage caps -- the maximum millage allowed by law.

According to the Education Department, Jackson County will be short more than $2.9 million this coming year. Factoring in funding deficits since 2009, that shortfall adds up to more than $32.5 million.

Jackson County schools Superintendent Barry Amacker calls the shortfall, coupled with increased property taxes, "a double whammy on residents."

"We send tax dollars to Jackson to begin with," he said. "Then we have to raise taxes locally to fund our schools. It makes you scratch your head.

"Paying our teachers is our first priority. We have to do it, but the funding we get barely gets that done.

"I get a chuckle when I hear legislators tell us it's not about the money. They say eliminate anything that's not essential.

"They're all essential."

School districts that haven't raised property taxes must contend with dilapidated infrastructure, attrition, hiring freezes and the consolidation of positions, and in some cases actual buildings.

Harrison County, the state's fourth-largest school district, has been underfunded by no less than $49 million since 2009, according to the MAEP formula. This year's budget will put it $4.8 million below the full funding required by law.

"Think about it for a second," superintendent Roy Gill said, "$4.8 million. That's a lot." Although his district hasn't raised its millage to the cap, he said he understands why other school districts have: "They're in a world of hurt."

For Harrison County, as elsewhere, attrition is the rule of the day.

"We're in the middle of budgeting now," Gill said. "We're going to have to tighten the belt even more.

"When administrators or teachers leave, we can't afford a replacement many times."

Pascagoula-Gautier schools Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich said his district hasn't resorted to raising property taxes. He credits a strong industrial base that provides ad valorum tax relief. However, funding shortfalls have affected the district greatly, he said. His concerns are school infrastructure and classroom modernization.

"In our district, the average age of a building is about 47 years old," he said. "Infrastructure, that's the concern here.

"I'm talking about antiquated plumbing, lighting and electrical systems.

"Just about all the money that comes in goes to personnel. Their salaries come first. You keep the people you need."

During a recent tour with a reporter, Rodolfich pointed out schools in need of renovation and repair. Repairs have been made at some schools, but aging bathrooms, water fountains, fixtures and tile and damaged roofs are juxtaposed against areas of fresh paint and modernization. When he considers how much his district has been shorted in the last eight years -- more than $2.4 million this year and more than $25 million total, his mind races to what could have been done.

Classroom modernization is a priority he would like to get to soon, he said.

After a long career in the Pass Christian School District, Superintendent Beth John announced at a school board meeting May 10 that she'd be retiring. John has worked in the school district since 1977. Her district has been short more than $6.8 million in state funding since 2009. This year, it stands to lose $658,891.

Before becoming superintendent, John was the school district's director of curriculum and instruction. She said funding cuts required the district to consolidate that position. She said Meredith Bangs is now the professional development coordinator, district test coordinator, principal of the alternative school and in charge of advanced accreditation. "Everyone has multiple roles but not enough time to spend their full attention on one thing," John said.

Consolidation isn't limited to personnel, she said, pointing out the school shares its ROTC program with Bay St. Louis and its vocational/technology building with Hancock County.

After changing insurance to save money and "several other things," John said administrators have had only one recourse.

"During our last budget year, we had to go back to the Board of Alderman," she said. "Our request would increase the millage. I told the audience it's time for you to stand up to (tell) the legislators that education funding is important to you."

John said funding issue will be the new superintendent's biggest challenge.

"We survived Katrina," she said. "We did that by coming together and doing everything we could to make our schools better. But this is a challenge all its own."

Many Coast schools consistently stand high in state and national rankings. Area graduation rates are higher than the state average. Most surpass the national average. Dropout rates are lower than the state average. Pass Christian and Ocean Springs high schools were recently ranked No. 1 and No. 3 respectively in the state by U.S. News and World Report.

Though it ranks high statewide, however, the No. 1 Mississippi school ranked 2,221st in the nation.

Limited state funding, John said, prevents school districts from hiring enough teachers to raise Mississippi schools in the national rankings. She questions the priorities of lawmakers.

"I don't know. I guess they're happy with us being 50th in everything. I would think they would invest in our children. If we had the resources some of these other schools have in other states, just imagine how well we would do," she said.

Rodolfich said school funding is a generational thing.

"We're raising a generation here. If you don't think that's important, what is?"

In a post-Katrina landscape, Rodolfich and John agree they overcame the most difficult of situations. After the hurricane, administrators, teachers and students worked in unison to get their schools back in shape, in some cases brick by brick. The chronic under-funding of education poses no less serious a challenge, John said. But without funding for the bricks, the superintendents say, it's up to residents to get involved.

"There was a groundswell of support after Initiative 42 (for which education supporters statewide had circulated a petition, in 2015, hoping to force legislators to fully fund education using the MAEP formula)," John said. "I think once people realize this affects their pocket books, they'll seek a solution.

"That's usually how it works."