School board defends budget

A larger-than usual crowd gathered for a public hearing Monday on the Bay-Waveland School District’s proposed $13.77 million budget, peppering board members and the school superintendent with questions and comments, many of them critical.

“When we’re in trouble and we can’t pay the bills, we borrow more money,” Bay St. Louis resident John Wilkerson told the School Board during the hearing. “And then you come to us and say you want to raise taxes.”

The district is asking for $228,000 more in local spending above its projected revenues for the upcoming school year, and is anticipating another $300,000 in funds from local growth. But if the tax base does not increase, that $300,000 will not be received.

The $228,000 would necessitate an ad valorem tax millage increase of 1.32 mills, district officials said. For a property owner with a home assessed at $100,000, the millage means a tax increase of $14.

For the upcoming school year, the district is projecting revenues of $13.77 million. Of the total, 57 percent, or $7.83 million, will come from property taxes, or ad valorem tax.

Of the district’s current $14.90 million budget, 49 percent now comes through ad valorem tax income.

The district has been besieged by state budget cuts to education, and still suffers from a lower student base caused by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. The administration froze wages and hiring and enacted multiple other spending reductions in recent weeks, but still came up short on operating revenue.

The district now has about 1,700 students. Before Katrina, there were 2,387 students. The decrease means less money in state funding.

“You can see that our budget has decreased,” School Superintendent Rebecca Ladner said as the hearing began. The planned tax increase is necessary, she added: “It’s not about paying for your personal child’s education. It’s about paying for an educated community, or an educated society.”

That did not deter criticism from the crowd of about 40 citizens who filled the school board’s small meeting room. Four or five citizens had attended last year’s budget hearing.

Monday, the audience fired off comments critical of the number of district administrators, a decision to cut teacher salaries, operation of the early childhood education facility in Waveland, amounts in scholarships won by graduating seniors, and other issues.

Some also asked how much the district has paid to Garland Cuevas, a former school district business administrator who came out of retirement to work as a part-time budget consultant. Ladner said she didn’t have figures available on Cuevas’ salary.

Cuevas, who was present at the hearing, said citizens could file a public information request to get his salary. But he declined to disclose it himself.

“I’d rather not announce it,” he said, adding that he worked half a normal schedule in the position this year.

On Tuesday, Ladner provided information on Cuevas’ salary to the Sea Coast Echo, showing he is being paid $41,650 this school year. “He’s not in the budget for 2010-2011,” she said.

Lana Noonan, a member of the audience Monday, said the district is spending unnecessary money by employing 19 administrators. In School Year 2004-2005, the district had only 17 people in the same job classification.

At the same time, the number of teachers has fallen from 183 in ’04-’05 to 152 this year, administration figures show.

“You’re top-heavy in administrators here today,” Noonan said. “We want to be getting something for all this administration and expertise.”

Bay resident Ames Kergosien produced figures showing the district has one teacher for every eight students, while the statewide average is one for every 17 students. The district’s cost per student is high, he said, and “the dropout rate is very high.”

Kergosien also questioned academic results, but Ladner said the district’s test scores are high. In addition, she said, Kergosien was relying on dated information for some of his facts.

However, Ladner added, “we’re expecting more out of our teachers in the classroom … we’re looking for our test scores to go up.”

Citizens were also critical of what they viewed as an apparent lack of effort by school officials when it came to helping graduating high school seniors get college tuition assistance. This year, students finishing Bay High received $1.6 million in scholarships, while seniors at Hancock High School got about $9 million worth of scholarships, they said.

The audience got to address only three of the school board’s five members. Board members Sherry Ponder, Clevand Williams, and Mike Benvenutti attended the public hearing. But members Cheryl Ladner and Robinette Lawler were absent, as was Ronnie Artigues, the board’s attorney.

No vote was taken Monday on the proposed budget.

“We are very mindful of your money,” Becky Ladner told the crowd. “We work on it day and night.”

However, some remained dubious.

“I think we are failing the children in this district,” Noonan said.

BY: J.R. Welsh

The Sea Coast Echo

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