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City Officials Respond to Letter from CMSD

There has been a not-so-quiet war waging between the city of Columbus and the Columbus Municipal School District over the impending budget crisis for the 2011-2012 city school year. Discussed behind the closed doors of executive sessions, the school board has been tight lipped about the heavily debated topic–until now. The issues between the city and the board came to a head last week in a very public way.
Members of the CMSD school board penned a letter to the Commercial Dispatch that appeared in last Thursday’s edition, explaining their position on the budget crisis. On Friday, the city’s Chief Operations Officer, David Armstrong, wrote a letter in response to the board’s position. Then, in the Sunday edition of the Dispatch, Mayor Robert Smith wrote an article outlining his opinions on the budget, the members of the school board, the milage hike and what it all means for tax payers.

The letter from the School Board as it appeared in the Commercial Dispatch:

The Board of Trustees of the Columbus Municipal School District is accountable to many different constituencies: the district’s boys and girls, employees, taxpayers and citizens. We have a responsibility to the boys and girls of the district to provide them with a high quality education. We understand our responsibility to our employees, who work hard to make each and every child successful. We know the taxpayers are the ones who financially support our educational efforts. We make good use of those funds. We also understand our responsibility to the general public, because we know the quality of life here in Columbus is greatly impacted by the quality of our educational product.
We respect the mayor and city council individually and collectively. We have met with the mayor and his team on three separate occasions to provide a status report to them regarding our budget process. In those meetings, we provided a detailed analysis of the district’s finances. We also offered to meet with any city council members that were not present at one of the three previous meetings.
The reason we opted not to have a joint meeting of the school board and the mayor and City Council was because of certain language in the Mayor’s letter. We were told, “… all parties now meet and formulate a strategy and plan on where to go from here … ” This sounded to us like the mayor and city council wanted to help craft the school district’s budget. According to Mississippi state law, the school board is an independent body and must follow all legal procedures.
We questioned the propriety of such a joint meeting and sought the advice of experts in the fields of school law and school finance before deciding not to engage in the proposed joint meeting. Mike Waldrop, Executive Director of the Mississippi School Boards Association; David Dunn, CMSD Board Attorney; Jim Young, Young Law Group, and Jim Keith, Adams & Reese all advised against a joint meeting. Mississippi State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Tom Burnham, also advised against such a joint meeting between the School Board and the Mayor and City Council.
We have followed the process that every Mississippi School District follows in preparing and submitting our annual budget. The interim superintendent and management team drafted a proposed budget that was presented to the school board. We then had a public budget hearing, which is required by law, at which citizens were informed about the proposed budget and asked questions. We answered every question and listened to every comment. Last Monday night the Trustees adopted its budget and hand delivered it to the mayor and city council on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, six days ahead of the Aug. 15 deadline.
Another example of our sensitivity to the public’s need and desire to obtain public input is our inviting the community on Sept. 13, 2011, to provide input to the Mississippi School Boards Association, which is assisting with the superintendent search. The public’s input is a critical component in assisting the trustees to establish the criteria for our next superintendent. As we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future, we will listen to every suggestion by the public and district employees.
During the last few weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion and misinformation about the school district’s budget. According to Lowndes County Tax Assessor, Greg Andrews, the school district has been shorted approximately $1.8 million the past three years, because the correct millage was not assessed by the city. If the correct millage had been assessed, the district would not be facing such difficult financial decisions.
The school board’s focus is on the future and doing everything possible to provide each and every child in the Columbus Municipal School District with a high quality education. We are all in this together, but it takes a collaborative effort from everyone to become the best school district our community needs and deserves. Our focus will continue to be on the children of the Columbus Municipal School District.
Currie Fisher
Bruce Hanson
Glenn Lautzenhiser
Tommy Prude
Alma Turner

The following is the letter from David Armstrong:

This letter is in response to “The Columbus School Board Responds” article in yesterday’s Commercial Dispatch, allegedly written by Currie Fisher, Bruce Hanson, Glenn Lautzenhiser, Tommy Prude and Alma Turner, who currently hold the position of Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees.
I want to congratulate these five individuals for getting together and drafting such a well-composed, misstatement of the truth.
They stated that: “According to Lowndes County Tax Assessor, Greg Andrews, the school district has been shorted approximately $1.8 million the past three years, because the correct millage was not assessed by the city.  If the correct millage had been assessed, the district would not be facing such difficult financial decisions.”
Let me set the record straight here.  Since fiscal year 2008-2009 (“the past three years”) the school millage was set by the City at 62.97 mills because that is the exact amount that former School Superintendent Del Phillips asked for from the City.
In the first meeting I had with Glenn Lautzenhiser, Tommy Prude, Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, school board CFO Kenny Hughes, the Mayor, three of our Council Members and our CFO, Mike Bernsen,  I told Glenn Lautzenhiser what Dr. Phillips had requested, and Glenn responded: “Well, Dr. Phillips had no authority to ask for less millage.  He never told us he had done so.”
But there’s more to this story.  Last budget season (sometime in August of 2010) I advised Del Phillips that his telling us (the City) we only needed to set 62.97 mills to fund their requested taxes was far before the millage actually required.  I showed Del my notes.  He read them, agreed, then said; “It doesn’t matter.  I can make it work; I can make it work.”
According to Mr. Lautzenhiser, Del never conveyed this to his Board.  When City representatives met with Del Phillips, he claimed he advised his Board and that they were fully aware that the millage he requested from the City was inadequate.
Frankly, I don’t know who’s telling the truth here: Del Phillips or Glenn Lautzenhiser. But I’ll tell you what I do know, as does everyone else from the City who met with Del Phillips when he asked for, what he knew was, inadequate millage:  the Columbus Municipal School Board either knew or should have known that Del Phillip’s requested millage was less than the school board needed.
And I’ll tell you who else also knew the requested school millage was below par: their CFO, Kenny Hughes.  In fact, when I asked Kenny that very question at the above referenced meeting, his response to me was: “Yes, I knew Del’s request was for less millage than needed.”  I then asked Kenny; “So, why didn’t you, as CFO, advise the school board of this fact since, as they claim, they had no knowledge of it?”  Kenny never responded.
 I’ll tell you in a nutshell what’s going on here. We, unfortunately, have a City School Board that has apparently been “rubber-stamping” everything Del Phillips ever asked of them.  I may be wrong, but I tend to side with Glenn: they probably didn’t know what Del did.  In my opinion, that’s a pretty lame excuse.
(And just for the record, Tax Assessor Greg Andrews also told Glenn Lautzenhiser what Del Phillips had done.)
The City did set the correct millage- the exact millage Del Phillips requested.
If the School Board is truly desirous of working together, then they don’t need to pass the buck when the true blame lies with them, their own CFO and their former Superintendent.

David Armstrong
Chief Operations Officer

The article from Mayor Robert Smith:

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. 0

3 comments

  1. Mike Cooper

    Not sure what good a public meeting would do. This city council has proven it won’t listen to the citizens’ input. But, this dispute should trigger a financial audit conducted by the State Department of Mississippi to determine what has happened to all the federal education grants. Did we build a new school building we can’t afford??

    • Mac Martin

      Siding with Mr. Cooper I think Mr. Lawson printed the words,’We don’t need a new building because there are not enough funds to pay for it.’ The reason stated by the school board was, ‘We need something so when people come in to Columbus they will see the new school and settle down here.’ I have never heard of a more pitiful reason to spend millions on something we can not afford. Now we are faced with unemployment and people trying to make ends meet on less that half of what they were while working. Consider lowering the school board salary! Let us see how really concerned they are.

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