Mayor Robert Smith speaks during a public budget hearing held at Brandon Central Services Thursday evening. Photo by: Mary Alice Truitt/Dispatch Staff
July 1, 2016 11:28:06 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Tension occasionally punctuated a three-hour school board meeting that, at one point, featured Mayor Robert Smith saying he felt he was being treated like a "second class citizen."
The Columbus Municipal School District board of trustees hosted a public hearing Thursday evening to present the school district's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017. The board will meet again on July 8 to consider adopting the budget.
The meeting grew contentious at times during a question-and-answer session as city officials aimed pointed questions at the school district.
City officials complained about the meeting's procedure, which required any citizens with questions to submit them written on a piece of paper, rather than freely asking questions while at the microphone.
"I feel like a second class citizen the way I've been treated here today, along with the other citizens," Smith said.
At one point, Smith asked how much money CMSD has in its fund balance as of Thursday. CMSD Business Administrator Tammie Holmes, saying she did not want to give an incorrect number, said the district had between $4 million and $5 million.
Smith asked the board if Holmes didn't know how much money CMSD has in reserves, and Holmes fired back.
"The fund balance number changes every day based on bills we're paying, checks we're cutting, monies we're receiving--those all are captured as a part of the fund balance," she said.
"We're not inept," she later added. "We're not incompetent. We understand what a fund balance is. I want to make that clear, because when you're attacking the credibility of me being knowledgeable, I take that personally and it's inconsiderate."
City Chief Administrative Officer David Armstrong questioned if CMSD has restructured the debt to lower interest and, in doing so, decrease the amount of money it has to pay on it.
Holmes said CMSD has restructured its debt in the past. She said the district is considering the option and has discussed it with its bond attorney.
CMSD Superintendent Philip Hickman said discussing available options was part of the reason district officials met with city administration last week to discuss budget projections. He then accused the city of "running with information" that hadn't been finalized when the mayor and council expressed concern about a potential 6.1 millage rate increase during the June 21 city council meeting. The 6.1 mill increase was lower than the district's original 7.35 mill increase for $1.4 million more local funds than last year.
At another point in the meeting, Hickman said the district has taken cost-saving measures such as closing 15 vacant positions. Twelve of those positions are for certified personnel, such as teachers. The cuts should save the district about $953,000 next year.
"Quite frankly, had we not come to meet with y'all and realized what you were doing, would you not have just presented that straight to your board?" Armstrong said. "Because we're talking about 7.35 mills."
Hickman said the district only meant to have a friendly conversation with city officials to discuss the process and early budget numbers. He blamed the city for causing a panic over a potential tax increase.
"We didn't put the numbers out to the public because we haven't proposed anything," Hickman said. "You did. You guys scared the public about raising taxes."
Armstrong wasn't fazed.
"We did," he said, "and it's a good thing we did."
At another point in the meeting, Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin questioned why CMSD's millage rate is higher than the state average, which he said the Mississippi Municipal League confirmed is 38-40 mills. CMSD's millage is currently set at 61.59 mills.
"Columbus', since I've been on the city council, it's always been 60 mills or greater," Gavin said. "Why?"
Gavin has been on the city council for seven years.
Hickman said millage rates can vary based on how much money a mill generates. In Columbus, a school mill is expected to be worth $204,000 in Fiscal Year 2017. Lowndes County School District mills, Hickman said, are worth significantly more than CMSD mills, which allows county schools to generate more local revenue while maintaining a lower millage rate. In an earlier meeting discussing school budgets, Tax assessor Greg Andrews said a Lowndes County school mill is worth about $331,000 and is expected to grow to about $478,000 next year.
When questioning the CMSD board on Thursday evening, Gavin said the city approved millage in 2012 for the 2013-14 school year with the understanding that it would cover debt service for construction at the middle school, which is driving financial concerns now.
"If I remember correctly, around 2012, for 13-14 school year, the city passed millage for the anticipated debt service that you all were going to incur now," Gavin said. "What happened to that money?"
Hickman, as he often did through the session, said the matter occurred before he arrived at CMSD. Instead, he pointed back at the city and for taxpayers not receiving the full benefit of 4.2 mills the district relinquished for FY 2016. The city, for this fiscal year, raised its millage by a little more than 2 mills.
"I wasn't here, and I don't know what they did with that money," Hickman said. "It's the same thing as we gave 4.2 mills back to the city, and you have a right to do whatever you want with that money."
Officials, including Smith, city Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, city Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, Ward 5 Councilman Steven Jones Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin attended the meeting.
Spears voices concerns
Board member Jason Spears questioned a number of recurring expenses in the district's budget for last year. He pointed to more than $900,000 of spending, much of which went to recurring expenditures.
"The bottom line is you're buying, you're buying, you're buying," he said.
Board member Currie Fisher shot back at Spears, attributing the costs to supplies for students, such as iPads, tablets, and other materials.
"We're talking about technology for our children," Fisher said. "We're talking about giving them an edge up on using the technology that governs the operations of this world, this global society, and you would say or intimate that those recurring costs are not worthy?
"As a board, yes, we should suggest ways to the superintendent to balance the budget so that those moneys we do spend are spent correctly," she said. "But the bottom line is it must be for our children, not to look good to the mayor or city council."
Thursday's meeting concluded with Hickman wondering at the table if Spears would send his children to CMSD schools. He expanded on the question after the meeting, saying that Spears was "mad that we are spending money to educate kids."
Spears has two children, one of which is school age. He said his oldest son will likely not attend CMSD.
"At this particular point, because of the actions of some, he probably would not go to the school, simply based off the leadership," Spears told The Dispatch in a phone interview Friday morning. "I believe in the teachers. I believe we've got a great system. I believe in the system. I just think we've got poor leadership in the superintendent's office."
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