The Columbus Municipal School Board held a budget workshop Saturday morning. Although the meeting was ostensibly called to discuss the budget, the board also discussed new transparency measures and a new web portal, accepted several bids and held an executive session.
Board President Tommy Prude was not present, nor was his replacement, Angela Verdell.
The meeting got off to a rocky start as Trustee Aubra Turner clashed with Vice President Currie Fisher, who chaired the meeting in Prude’s absence. Fisher called for and received a motion and a second, and Turner attempted to speak during the discussion phase of the action.
“I would like to say that I do no approve of this agenda,” she said. “Nor do I approve of the rescheduling of our regular monthly meeting [in March].” [The March meeting has been rescheduled twice. Originally set for March 11, which falls during Spring Break, it was first rescheduled for March 7 and then changed again to March 19. – Brian Jones] Fisher cut her off.
“Excuse me,” Fisher said. “We’re trying to approve the agenda. Can you hold that? Do you have a question?”
“It’s not a question, it’s a comment,” Turner said, but Fisher proceeded, calling for a vote. The agenda was approved 3-1, with Turner voting no.
After the vote, Turner tried again.
“Excuse me,” Turner said. “I did not get a chance to make my comment. You’re supposed to be able to make comments or ask questions, and I would like to do so.”
“Mrs. Turner, we are going to stay in order—” Fisher said.
“That is in order,” Turner interrupted. “You did not allow me a chance to make a comment.”
“I asked if you had any questions,” Fisher said.
“I have a comment to make regarding the agenda,” Turner insisted. “We are talking about the adoption of the agenda.”
“We took the adoption of the agenda under Robert’s Rules of Order,” Fisher said. “I called to see if there was a question. You said you had no question.”
The meeting then proceeded with no further discussion of the issue.
[I am not an expert on parliamentary procedure, but it seems to me that Ms. Fisher is in error. Under Robert’s Rules, most motions have a discussion phase during which debate may take place, and I suspect that Ms. Turner’s attempt to comment was proper. One of my major complaints with Mr. Prude’s leadership of the board was that he routinely tried to stifle any debate – at least any dissenting debate – among board members. I’m sad to see Ms. Fisher following in his footsteps. – Brian Jones]
Superintendent Martha Liddell gave a brief presentation about Board Book, which is a web-based program that will make the meeting agenda and attachments available to the public.
“We want to be as transparent and open with the public as humanly possible,” Liddell said. “We want to make sure taxpayer dollars are going to the proper location, and we want to make sure that anyone in the community can see the agenda and everything that goes with it.”
Liddell said the program, which is used by the Mississippi School Board Association and many districts around the state, should be up by the next board meeting. Notices, agendas and attachments will all be available through the web site.
Special Assistant for Public Relations Michael Jackson gave a brief presentation about the district’s new web portal.
Testing data, the No Child Left Behind Report Card, school data and information on district- and building-level administrators will all be available on-line, he said, as well as various resources for parents and the news media. The portal will also include links to the district’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Business Manager Kenneth Hughes gave a presentation about the district’s current budget status. [Mr. Hughes was to have been joined by Tax Assessor Greg Andrews for this portion of the meeting, but Mr. Andrews had been dropped from the agenda by Saturday. I understand that it was due to a schedule conflict. – Brian Jones]
“The first thing I have for you is a five-year history of our ad valorem request,” Hughes said. “Our tax request is made in four separate levies. The first is our general obligation fund. For the year we’re in now, that request was $9,669,228. [In 2011-12 the district levied $10.7 million in district maintenance funds; in 2010-11, $10.65 million; in 2009-10, $10.69 million; and in 2008-09, $10.5 million. – Brian Jones] The next levy is our three-mill note. When we rebuilt Stokes-Beard after the tornado, the three-mill note is what we used to finance it. For the current year that request is $296,971. [The three-mill note levy has ranged from a low of $290,096 in 2011-12 to a high of $645,000 in 2008-09. – Brian Jones] Next we have the shortfall notes. We have two shortfall notes on the books for the current year. One of those will roll off next year as far as the ad valorem request. In the current year that amount is $487,184. [In 2011-12 the amount was $710,000; in 2010-11, $379,555; and in 2009-10, $224,102. There was no shortfall payment in 2008-09. – Brian Jones] Finally we have general obligation bonds. The request for the current year is $2,705,573. That’s actually made up of four debt instruments. We’ll get to the debt in a minute. [The debt service amount has fluctuated over the years. In 2011-12, it was $2.6 million; in 2010-11, it was $2.2 million; in 2009-10, $2.5 million; and in 2008-09, $2.4 million. – Brian Jones] Overall our current ad valorem request is less than it has been over the past four years at $13,158,956.” [In 2011-12 it was $13.4 million; in 2010-11 it was $13.5 million; in 2009-10 it was $13.7 million; in 2008-09 it was $13.6 million. – Brian Jones]
Hughes said that the district has collected about 82 percent of its total levy for this financial year.
“Every month Mr. Spears asks me where we are in our collections,” Hughes said. “When you compare where we were in January of this year to where we were in January of last year, it’s real close.” [Specifically, it’s within about $170,000. – Brian Jones] Hughes said numbers on February’s collections won’t come in until March 20.
Hughes then briefly explained the district’s debt service.
“We’ve got four separate debt instruments in our general obligation bonds,” Hughes said. “The first one will mature in 2014. It was originally issued in 1994 as part of a $16 million bond issue. We refinanced the remaining debt in 2007. Then we passed a $21 million bond issue in 2008 for the new middle school. Those bonds were issued in three separate issues. The first was $9.95 million in 2008, the second was $9.95 million in 2009 and the third was $2.1 million in 2009.
“The next issue is our three-mill tax note,” he said. “That was originally issued for $6.5 million for Stokes-Beard construction. We have two shortfall notes. The 2010 shortfall issue will roll off as far as the ad valorem next year. We do have one payment in 2013, in August. That leaves the remaining shortfall of $908,000 from 2011.”
The district also has $2.5 million in debt as part of a remodeling at Columbus High School and $3 million used for adding fifth-grade classrooms at Sale, Stokes-Beard and Cook. [This went hand-in-hand with the construction of the new middle school. The elementary schools previously handled grades K-4. With the advent of the middle school, Hunt Intermediate was closed. Its sixth-graders went to the new school, and then-Superintendent Del Phillips decided the fifth-grade students would be folded into the elementary campuses, which necessitated more classroom space. – Brian Jones] Finally, the district has $293,815 in debt arising from a Mississippi Development Authority energy efficiency loan. It will roll off in 2015.”
Hughes looked at revenues and expenditures thus far.
“In 2011-12 we received $44.5 million in actual revenues,” Hughes said. “We budgeted for $40.4 million in the 2012-13 year. We have actually received year to date through January 31 $17.5 million. The ad valorem is pretty much the only wild card in our revenues. Our money from the state and the federal government is divided up into 12 installments. Ad valorem taxes are the only wild card. If you take that thought, we are at about where we were last year on the revenue side.
“Expenditures are about the same,” he said. “In 2011-12 our actual expenditures were $43 million. Our budgeted amount in 2012-13 was $39.5 million, and YTD we’ve spent $21.5 million. If you’ll look at how we spend, you’ll see that $19.4 million is spent on instructional services.” [About $13.5 is spent on support services, $2.3 million on non-instructional service (primarily food), $4.2 million on debt. – Brian Jones] “After what happened last year, where is the employment percentage?” asked Jason Spears. “Is it still at 65 or 66 percent, or has it expanded back out?”
“I don’t have that,” Hughes said. “Instructional service is not all salaries. I think it would be more like 72 percent the prior year, and we’re still right around that.”
The board took no action.
In other business:
• The board heard a presentation from Assistant Superintendent Anthony Brown about progress towards more easily tracking travel expenditures. Brown showed a draft form that employees will be required to fill out in order to detail travel expenses. Brown also objected to news reports stating that the district could not track travel: “I can track every dollar I spend.”
• The board accepted bids for fiber services and network upgrades.
• The board discussed a personnel issue in executive session.
[The board also heard a presentation by former state auditor Leslie Shivers, now a CPA in private practice, on exactly how much information is too much for a board member to receive. His appearance was clearly spurred by Mr. Spears and Ms. Turner’s request for more thorough information at the last board meeting. I ran out of time this week to get fully into his remarks, but they boiled down to “you should get as much information as you are comfortable with.” – Brian Jones] 0