Robert Smith: Explaining the dollars-and-cents relationship between city and schools

August 13, 2011 7:21:00 PM

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As Mayor of the City of Columbus, I am writing this article to try to clarify any issues concerning the fiscal relationship between the City of Columbus and the Columbus Municipal School District. 

 

Let me begin by making two preliminary points: first of all, the information I will be giving in this article is applicable to not just the City of Columbus and the Columbus Municipal School District, but to all cities and their respective municipal school districts throughout this state; secondly, the State laws I am about to reference apply to not only all cities in Mississippi, but also to all county governments and their respective school districts, as well.  

 

In a nutshell, the fiscal relationship between a city and/or county government and their respective school district is governed entirely by State law. In other words, neither Columbus nor any other city or county in Mississippi has any discretionary authority over a school district''s budget.  

 

By law, cities and counties are the "levying authority." In other words, and I''m quoting straight from the applicable State law, "upon receipt of the school board''s order" requesting tax dollars, " the levying authority (city and/or county) shall determine the millage rate necessary to generate funds equal to the dollar amount requested by the school board." That''s the law, plain and simple.  

 

Except for one point: and this is why I emphasized the above word "order." By State law, each and every school board''s request to its local levying authority (be it a city or county government) is actually a specific directive and order that the city or county will levy the millage to generate the exact dollar amount needed by that school system.  

 

And not only must all cities and counties in Mississippi set the millage to meet the school board''s tax dollar order, it must do so to the penny! To be even more specific, the Mississippi Attorney General, back in 1999, stated emphatically that no city or county in this state has any authority whatsoever "to reduce the tax request made by the school board."  

 

So what does all this mean? It means that every school across this State can tell local elected officials to raise taxes! It means that an appointed board (whether city or county) can tell an elected board what to do. That really makes no sense if you think about it, right? So why not just remove the members of the school board and appoint new members? State law prohibits that too. School board members get to stay for the full term of their appointments, by law, unless they commit a felony.  

 

But across Mississippi, cities'' and counties'' hands are tied. Basically, appointed school boards decide how much school taxes citizens have to pay. Personally, I think that''s wrong.  

 

Twenty or so years ago, local governments got about sixty per-cent (60%) of the tax dollars and the schools got forty per-cent (40%). Now it''s just the opposite: the schools get roughly sixty percent (60%) and cities get forty per-cent (40%).  

 

Please don''t misunderstand me. I spent 31% years as an educator and even served on the Columbus Municipal School Board for 5 years. I''m very pro-education and support more pay for all teachers. Unfortunately, at least in the City of Columbus School District, that''s not where the real dollars are going. They''re going to big salaries for way too many administrators. Again, I personally think that''s wrong.  

 

The City School Board could have made serious cuts in their budget request which they delivered to us this past Tuesday morning, August 9th, but they didn''t. The City School Board could have given us a smaller, dollar request so the City wouldn''t be legally forced to raise taxes 2.9 more mills, but they didn''t. The City School board should be concerned that by forcing the City to raise millage they are running people away, but they obviously aren''t. The City School Board should also be concerned that by continually grabbing, as allowed by law, a bigger and bigger piece of the tax dollar pie, they are forcing the City into a bad position where we cannot continue to provide the same, City services without raising our own millage rates.  

 

On several occasions, I personally requested that members of the Columbus School Board meet with me and the Columbus City Council to discuss how a realistic, City School budget, requiring no millage increase by the City, could be developed. They flat refused. They also refused to meet when I proposed a public meeting so that citizens and the media could attend and participate. In- excusable.  

 

Instead, behind closed doors, the School Board drafted ten (10) different, proposed budgets -- all with different numbers, including different debt schedule repayment amounts (which makes no sense), then presented them to Lowndes County Tax Assessor/Collector Greg Andrews and asked him to help them decide which request to present to the City, but with ten (10) different, proposed budgets with tax requests that are literally impossible to correlate, much less comprehend.  

 

Let me end this by simply saying that I wrote this article to let the people of this community know, in no uncertain terms, the following: the Columbus City School Board sets its own budget, not the City; by State law, the City has to levy millage to meet the exact dollar request; also by State law, the City has no authority to lower and or change the School Board request by one penny; the Columbus City School Board refused to make real cuts, as I requested, in their budget; plus, the School Board had the audacity to order the City to raise taxes by 2.9 more mills; the School Board, and their Interim Superintendent, consistently refused to meet with the Mayor and City Council, and the citizens and media, to discuss their proposed budget; the School Board''s tenth, revised budget presented to my office is a farce, at best. The current School Board apparently does not care whether the citizens of Columbus pay more taxes or leave the City.  

 

Robert Smith is the mayor of Columbus.