School districts brace for more cuts

Legislature may reduce number of school days

           Zared Moran does his school work at South Hancock Elementary School. School districts throughout South Mississippi are facing deep budget cuts next year.

          North Bay Elementary School second grade teacher Dusti Olive works through a math lesson with her students. Student-teacher ratios could be higher next year, depending on how much budgets are cut by the Legislature.

Superintendents in South Mississippi are considering laying off employees, reducing salaries and eliminating programs if their budgets for next year are cut significantly by the Legislature.

Districts have had to cut spending and use their savings to deal with budget cuts from the governor’s office since July, and they are preparing for more.

Legislators passed a bill last week restoring $37 million to education, but Gov. Haley Barbour hasn’t signed it yet. If Barbour signs it, the money would go back into this year’s budget, but educators believe next year’s budget could be cut up to 15 percent.

Most school officials are making lists of possible cuts so they will be ready when they get the final numbers.

“Everybody’s facing the same problem,” said Henry Arledge, superintendent of Harrison County schools. “We’re just all figuring out how to deal with it.”

Arledge has one of the largest districts in the state with 13,400 students. He had to cut $5.6 million from his budget since July 1.

Legislators are considering a bill that would cut instructional days from 180 to 175 and also would allow districts to require employees to take furloughs, or unpaid leave.

Most superintendents aren’t against furloughs, but they are adamantly opposed to reducing the number of school days.

“I cannot support reducing the number of instructional days in any way,” State Superintendent Tom Burnham said in a statement. “Research shows that the two most important factors in student achievement are the quality of the teacher in the classroom and time on task. We simply cannot shortchange our students on the number of days we provide them in the classroom.”

Ocean Springs Superintendent Robert Hirsch had to come up with $800,000 this year and said cuts could be as high as $4 million next year. He said he knows every state department has to tighten their belts, but he wonders if legislators realize students will suffer.

“I see a lack of vision and cohesiveness when it comes to education,” he said. “When you start cutting for two to three years, those are the kinds of things that affect test scores and graduation rates.

“What bothers me is that they are cutting resources and personnel, but they still expect test scores to go up.”

Hirsch is in favor of furloughs, but he thinks legislators should have cut their own salaries, too.

“I think it’s poor role modeling for them not to make that gesture themselves,” he said. “I understand they have a challenge, too, but show a little gumption.”

Hancock County Superintendent Alan Dedeaux said he has cut business courses at the high school and driver’s education, and layoffs are possible next year.

“You hate to make those assumptions, but we’re hearing that the cuts will be deep,” he said, adding if the district is cut 10 percent it would be about $2.3 million slashed from the budget.

“Expectations should remain high for our students,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the past few years, and that needs to continue.”

Pascagoula Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich agrees. He has 7,000 students and cut $2 million this year by not filling positions and cutting back on school spending, as well as using money from the district savings account.

He also is waiting to see what the Legislature does before making any final decisions.

“Basically what it’s going to have to come down to for this state is what is our priority,” Rodolfich said. “I will do what I am mandated to do, but I’m against anything that hurts the quality of education.”

Education bill

HB 1170 would cut the number of instruction days from 180 to 175 and would allow districts to require employees to take furloughs, or unpaid leave. If passed, districts could furlough all employees for no more than three days during the remainder of this school year, as well as two days during the 2010 and 2011 school years. The House passed the bill, and the Senate amended it, so now it goes back to the House for consideration. 

By MELISSA M. SCALLAN – mmscallan@sunherald.com

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