Article Comment 

Birney Imes: Time to pay the piper

 

Birney Imes

 

Speculation has been rife in recent weeks over what manner of tax increase will be required for the city schools'' budget. The lack of information coming from the district''s central office has fueled a growing sense of unease. 

 

Taxes will be going up; that much everyone agrees. Just how much depends on whom you ask. 

 

There is a lot of finger pointing going on, and some of those fingers are pointing north toward Sumner County, Tenn., where recently departed superintendent Del Phillips now runs the schools. 

 

For four years, Phillips worked his magic here. He took a moribund school system and infused it with energy, closing under-used schools, creating a magnet school system, leading the charge for a successful bond issue and then building a $22-million middle school. Just as significantly, Phillips brought back credibility and restored enthusiasm for the city schools. 

 

All that innovation came with a cost, and Phillips'' critics say he''s left the district holding the bag. They now want to bury the Caesar they once praised. 

 

Phillips bristles at the assertions of his detractors. 

 

Everything he and the board did was on the up and up, he says. 

 

"The board signed off on everything we did," he said. 

 

This weekend the former superintendent was in the area to attend the wedding of a friend''s child. At the request of another friend, Mayor Robert Smith, Phillips met Friday morning with Smith, three councilmen, tax collector Greg Andrews and city operations manager David Armstrong. The group wanted the former super''s take on the budget situation. 

 

"I told them they needed to make $600,000 to $700,000 in cuts and ask for a 3-mill tax increase," Phillips said afterward. 

 

A 3-mill increase will cost the owner of a home appraised at $100,000 $30 more in city property taxes annually. 

 

Andrews isn''t so sure 3 mills is enough. And then, there is the matter of funding the city, which he says needs more money, as well. He says that increase could be another 2.5 to 4 mills. 

 

Presently, the city contribution to the city schools is about $13.5 million; the city itself -- administration, fire department, police, street department -- runs on less than half that, $6.5 million. 

 

Andrews believes the city schools and, for that matter, the city, have deferred needed tax increases for three years. In the case of the schools, they have taken money from the district''s reserve fund to make up shortfalls. Added pressure came from the unanticipated reduction in state funding, now almost $2 million a year less for the Columbus district than it was in 2008. 

 

"They needed to be moving that millage up each year," said Andrews. 

 

After the passage of the $22 million bond issue, Phillips dropped the school''s request 1.88 mills to its present level at 62.97. Phillips had said the millage increase needed to fund the new school would not exceed 3 mills (beyond its then 64.85 level). 

 

Yet the district reduced the millage and kept it down. A popular move then, but now it''s time to ante up, says Andrews. 

 

Two years ago, the city borrowed $3.8 million to pave roads and service debt (something Andrews disapproves of). He expects the paving financed by the 20-year loan will last eight to nine years. 

 

"They all seem to be living for the moment," he said. 

 

As for the school district after Del -- who Andrews says was the most financially savvy superintendent of the nine he''s worked with -- the tax collector is less charitable. The picture he paints is one of confusion and inconsistency. 

 

"Between me and the mayor, we''ve gotten four different budget requests from the school district, and none of them have been adopted," he said. "Del always hand delivered his budget on or around June 20." 

 

The first request, delivered in May, was for $14.3 million; the most recent was $13.5 million, a number Andrews says will take a 4.5-mill increase to reach. 

 

"No one there knows what to do," he says. 

 

A meeting between city and school officials was unproductive, says Andrews. According to the tax collector, the district''s chief financial officer, Ken Hughes, when asked specifics about the budget, deflected questions saying, "I answer to the superintendent." 

 

"He wouldn''t answer," said Andrews. 

 

Andrews believes the administration is top heavy, and he questions some of the cuts that have been made. 

 

"They''re talking about cutting; they cut the golf program (Andrews'' son plays golf.) and saved $6,000. The week after they hired a new principal (Scott Hallmark) at the high school for $95,000 they gave his wife a job at the high school as the sixth science teacher for $49,000." 

 

"They''ve cut golf, cross country, slow-pitch softball and volleyball," he said. "Those are programs for the kids." 

 

About the needed tax increase, Andrews says, "Somebody has got to stand up and say, ''this is what we''ve got to do.''"

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment hope commented at 7/24/2011 1:18:00 PM:

Again, I have a wonderful idea! Make more cuts and use the extra tax that is collected from the concert and the bass tournament to pay on the school. Both the taxpayers and businesses will be treated fairly.

 

Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/24/2011 3:13:00 PM:

Birney, Birney, I got the sense while reading this pathetic diatribe that you almost wanted to "point the finger" at yourself. Why, because you know that you and the Water Boy Gang are to blame for this tax increase. Yet, you hesitated, and half-heartedly tried to throw Del Phillips under the bus - but you tooke pause, because Del is your boy (or maybe you're his since you carried his water up until he left you for a sexier parycheck. And credibility? Is that what you ascribe to Dr. Del? Could you please print a standardized test score comparison between the city and county schools (don't bother, the Packet makes it a routine edition). Oh, then Ken Hughes and the city of Columbus get thrown under "The Big, Red, Double-Decker Diaster". Why don't you re-print the celebration photo that ran in the paper after the bond vote? You, Doris, Leroy, all standing, hands clapsed in vistory, that's who to blame. This paper was, once again, used as your bully pulpit on misguided whims (the Caledonia mascot "issue"). You and the WBG gambled on a loser, and lost. Man up and take responsibility for this. In my humble opinion, Dr. Del got you to buy him a $22 million dollar bullet point for his resume', and being the parasite you are, you are using that off-center, cheaply produced editorial page to tell the citizens of Columbus "pay the piper". It is interesting to note that the largest amount of advertising speace in the most recent edition of the Dispatch is occupied by political campaigns, and, well, the Dispatch, itself. The business owners that pay the sales tax tickets in this town will, surely, send someone to the libray to scour the Sunday Dispatch from, say, two years ago. They'll find that the Publisher/Editor of this paper was the loudest proponent of this $22 million resumne' builder, and its accompanying tax hike. They'll probably find that aforementioned photo. The Packet's number is in the book. Oh, shout out to Greg Andrews for standing the fiscal ground, and to Sarah Fowler. Sarah, while I do not dig the "Sex and the City" weekly, you are the most fact oriented "journalist" in Columbus (see Sarah's recent reports in the other newspaper).

 

Article Comment sheatherly commented at 7/24/2011 3:44:00 PM:

NOW you're starting to scratch the surface. And very coincidental that you referred to the Pied Piper, my exact sentiments...I started to post a comment about it.
(Come on lower position CMSD employees including those of you in the central office. It's TIME to start telling what you know...this is your opportunity to change it before a new superintendent is hired. You hold a wealth of very useful information. Write a letter. Send it to someone. Afraid of losing your employment? It should NOT be that way. YOUR voices are the only hope for change.)

 

Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/24/2011 4:56:00 PM:

What do you know, shea? Is it juicy, or speculation? Does it involve Del and the "Pop-a-Top"? Don't post a comment urging others to spill the proverbial beans, tell what you know. Maybe, that while the dorks that ran up to support the partying cop, the informed citizens of Columbus were at the abandoned Brandon school addressing their tax increase. Where were you?

 

Article Comment sheatherly commented at 7/24/2011 5:01:00 PM:

@ pat henry...and where were YOU when the 'Phillips worship' pictures were current along with the articles leading up to those? I kept waiting and waiting for SOMEONE to make realistic opposing comments while it was TIMELY, I did not see yours anywhere. Please copy/paste here if you made any and I missed them.
Just like those people who finally gave their opposing opinions about St. John AFTER the verdict was rendered...it is SO easy to spew venom, to demean and belittle in the creative writing style that you displayed in order to make yourself look intelligent and superior by using a supreme and witty patronizing style AFTER you knew that you may be correct with your opinions...no risk involved.
I am GLAD that Birney is presenting this side of the story now...THANKFUL for it...no matter what his stance was before.
Next time, pat henry, jump on whichever bandwagon you choose from the very start...and get the ball rolling...when it might do some good.

 

Article Comment 4him commented at 7/24/2011 6:42:00 PM:

We decrease wages or downsize private sector workers, raise the cost of living; including food and fuel, now let's raise the taxes. Has 'the powers that be' tried to pay a mortgage, utility bills, and feed a family at poverty level? Do they do without? Without cellphones, without paid TV programming, without eating out, without buying new clothes? Have they tried shopping for clothing at thirft stores, consignment shops, and close-out stores when they manage to squeeze a $5 bill from the budget? Try planning meals and buying groceries for even 2 weeks with maybe $70! And now that we are reduced to nothing... let's take that away too.

>>>A 3-mill increase will cost the owner of a home appraised at $100,000 $30 more in city property taxes annually.<<<

Well, now that the housing market is tanking will you please re-access the value of my house. You have it overvalued for the market! At this point that $30 is my clothing budget for the year. I wish I were joking; I'm not.

But, hey, let's raise taxes... school, city, state, federal and it will not end there!

 

Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/24/2011 7:33:00 PM:

Shea, I am the bandwagon, baby! If you could provide a translation for the scatterbrain whatever you typed a while ago, that would be helpful. And, yes, I was commenting on here two years ago when the Del Philips Used Car Lot was in business. Where were you, water boy?

 

Article Comment birney commented at 7/25/2011 11:59:00 AM:

Birney Imes replies: Finger pointing about the past and making disparaging remarks about those no longer with us may be satisfying on some level, but it gets us as a community nowhere. What's done is done.

Almost 80 percent of those who voted said yes to the new middle school. While it would be nice to think The Dispatch had that kind of influence, I think the vote was fueled by a desire for better education system as envisioned by a charismatic leader. Like him or not, agree with him or not, Del Phillips brought new energy and new optimism to a school system sorely in need of both. Yes, he and the board spent a lot of money doing it. Could it have been done for less? Perhaps so.

Again, that's the past.

The challenge for us now as a community is how to continue on the path to excellence Phillips set us on. That means making sound, sometimes tough decisions about leadership, spending and programs.

We can tear ourselves apart -- something Columbus does too well and too often -- or we can build on what's been done. Which is it going to be?

 

Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/25/2011 3:01:00 PM:

"Del Phillips brought new energy and new optimism to a school system sorely in need of both. Yes, he and the board spent a lot of money doing it. Could it have been done for less? Perhaps so."

Mr. Imes, energy and optimism are great attributes for a cheerleader. Where are the results, other than the $22 million resume' builder? Again, how did the city test scores compare with the county? The Columbus City Schools are a chaotic mess now. You sir, lobbied through this paper for an end to neighborhood schools, and you lobbied for this new middle school.

You may attach gravitas to it all you wish, the fact remains that the public (who must pay for Del's resume') are left holding the bag. Please, for full disclosure's sake, re-print the photo I mentioned.

 

Article Comment homeagain commented at 7/25/2011 10:27:00 PM:

Pat Henry: Test scores for Columbus and Lowndes County schools have been on the rise for the past four years (the years Del Phillips was in Columbus)based upon the MCT2 test...the test that helps bring Mississippi up to the national standard for testing third through eighth graders. The data is on http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/acad/osa/testdata.html. Averaging the scores for all grades in each year from 2009 through 2011, Columbus students improved their Proficient and Advanced percentage in Language from 41.1% to 45.3% and in Math from 45.6% to 54% while reducing the percentage of students who scored in the lowest category of "minimal" in Language from 17.2% to 13.3% and in Math from 24.6% to 16.4%. Lowndes County scores are approximately 10 points better than the Columbus scores for Proficient and Advanced. Lowndes County students improved their Proficient and Advanced scores in Language from 53.2% to 62.2% and in Math from 58.2% to 69% while reducing the percentage of students scoring in the Minimal range in Language from 10.4% in 2008 to 6.9% in 2011 and in Math from 15.7% to 8.7%. I've been in just about all of the schools in Columbus and Lowndes County, I would not describe any of them as "chaotic." Quite the opposite. The students at the new middle school in Columbus carry themselves with a quiet and confident demeanor. No school building makes this happen. Leadership at every level makes this happen. A new school doesn't hurt either. From the beginning of his time here, Del Phillips managed the finances better than any of his immediate predecessors (read Gregg Andrews' quote from Sunday's article). Del cut programs and staff and reduced salaries (including his own first) to make ends meet. He told this community from the beginning that the bond issue for the middle school would cost 3 mils. Everybody forgets that he cut the mils by 1.88 in his first year through his management of budget. The City Council, the Board of Education and Gregg Andrews have known every year how much additional revenue needed to be raised to support the programs that Del put in place. It has not been politically "smart" to raise taxes...even $30/year for a $100k house. 2008 was a very good year economically. Nobody saw 2009 and 2010 coming and so we all got surprised. The only surprises here are the ones nobody knew about...that's why they are called "surprises!"

 

Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/26/2011 6:39:00 AM:

What, Birney admit he help make a steaming pile? You gotta stop posting when you're high.

 

Article Comment kat commented at 7/26/2011 6:43:00 AM:

thanks Homeagain for putting some real facts and figures on paper!! I was beginning to think that Birney Imes rushed around town every morning tell everyone what to eat for breakfast and what clothes to wear to work-WOW- to read some of this diatribe you would think nobody had a brain of their own. I think the voters made the decision to build the new school...and it will pay off in the long run.Things are tight EVERYWHERE. Programs will have to be cut. Let's focus on HOW and WHAT to cut. We will get through this AND have a wonderful, top notch school that our children will be proud to attend.

 

Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/26/2011 6:48:00 AM:

Thank you for making my point. Lowndes County students seem to be receiving a better education. 10% overall, and by 15-17% in targeted subjects.

I have to wonder why you're trying to carry water based on those numbers. There is admitted improvement, but the margin between the City and County grew as the County continues to improve.

I would hope that Dr. Del would have some sense at producing numbers when he's asking for such a pricey resume'.

 

Article Comment sheatherly commented at 7/26/2011 1:54:00 PM:

@homeagain...You seem knowledgable with facts and figures, and since the subject of the tax increase is current, ...can you ALSO give the figures of what the salaries of the FOUR CMSD assistant superintendents were/are? ...when other districts the size of Columbus usually only have TWO?
Can you possibly put a figure on the COST of the "magnet school continuation" program that existed the last two years at Hunt (was not a magnet school) where ONLY the students from Stokes-Beard were allowed to participate? ...that exclusive situation where the four sister/sister administrators' sons/nephews were included in a select group with their individual personal laptop computers and brand new furniture? Or was that paid for with stimulus money? ..and does that make it acceptable? What is the cost of one laptop computer? $1000.? $2000.? And was EVERY student from Stokes-Beard included in this special setup?
And can you JUSTIFY the renovations that had to be done for this same select group the last year of Hunt's operation when this group moved up to the 6th grade and received new lockers(?) along with other expenses to move the whole operation to another building on the same campus just months before the school's closing?
Can you give us the cost of JUST the recent landscaping installation and maintenance for JUST this last school year? How much was spent on trees? ...and how much overtime paid to maintenance workers?
homeagain, could you POSSIBLY tell the public what was the total cost of ALL THOSE training conferences to prepare for the magnet school program for a hand-picked group of employees? And those other all-expense paid conference trips that are taken each year, some including air fare, with luxury accomodations?
Yes, the city needs to pay a $30+ increase in taxes so that a select few at CMSD can go lay out at the pool at the Beau Rivage Hotel & Casino in Biloxi....or fly to Florida?...or was it South Carolina?
homeagain, is there ANY reason why the public should not have full disclosure of every penny spent by CMSD?

 

Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/26/2011 3:17:00 PM:

Shea's bringing the heat to the Water Boy Gang!!!!!

 

Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/27/2011 7:28:00 AM:

Ouch!!!

 

Article Comment sheatherly commented at 7/27/2011 11:43:00 AM:

At least the Pied Piper in the fairy tale got rid of the towns rats!

 

Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/28/2011 8:13:00 AM:

Why is it you can't get hot food from fast food places in this town? McDonalds, Wendy's, Hardee's and Burger King in East Columbus seldom, if ever, hand out hot food. Most of the time it is barely above room temperature, which is a violation of Food Service Handling Codes not to mention dangerous to the public. And where is the Health Department inspectors during all of this? They claim to visit these places every six months but if you go to these dumps on any given day at any given time you'll be handed cold food that should have been hot.

So how come they don't know about it and do something about it?

And you can save your voice by not bothering to complain to the management about it. All you'll get is lip service, and a coupon for more cold food.

So why does the fast food places in East Columbus suck so badly, and why do they refuse to address the issue?

 

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