Columbus Municipal School District patrons will pay a virtually flat ad valorem tax rate this fiscal year, but two board members and Superintendent Cherie Labat believe that decision could cost the community long-term in different ways.
Last week, board members voted 3-2 to request $10,792,525.86 in ad valorem taxes for operations in Fiscal Year 2022, which began July 1. At that level, the tax rate — which was 61.98 mills last fiscal year for operations and debt service combined — may increase by less than a half-mill. Board members Jason Spears, Josie Shumake and Frederick Sparks pushed through the measure.
However, Labat — supported by board president Yvonne Cox and member Telisa Young — recommended requesting an additional $428,682.43, or 4 percent, which would have likely raised the tax rate by roughly 2 mills.
“I try my best for us to work together as one accord on the board,” Cox told The Dispatch on Thursday. “Regretfully, we look at this a little differently. And I do mean regretfully.”
The request now goes to the city council, which will approve the appropriation from local taxes and set the mill rate. A mill is used to determine property taxes and is equal to $10 in actual taxes for every $100,000 of assessed property value not covered by Homestead exemption.
By state law, a public school district can claim the collections of any of the previous three fiscal years, plus up to 4 percent, as its “base” that it can request from ad valorem taxes for operations. CMSD claimed collections for 2019-20, the highest of the three options by about $90,000, but Spears contends the district was in strong enough financial shape to not add any more burden on taxpayers.
District policy dictates CMSD keep 12 percent of its operations budget, about $3.95 million, saved as fund balance each year, Spears said. By the time the books close for FY 2021, he told The Dispatch the district’s surplus would cover that, plus add at least $1.3 million to a separate fund for capital improvements, which would then boast a balance of more than $4 million.
“Why would we need to request more money (from ad valorem)?” Spears said. “… We’re not scrambling to find money to do things when they need to be addressed.”
Spears also noted the district is set to receive up to $32 million in COVID relief (ESSER) funds over multiple phases that can be used to offset any “learning loss” caused by the pandemic. That could include anything from programs and tutors to things like better ventilation systems in the school buildings.
Both Cox and Labat, speaking to The Dispatch on Thursday, said districtwide needs for facility repairs should be more of an immediate priority. While some exterior issues — such as the roof at the high school — are being addressed now, there are interior structural issues at several other campuses that need attention.
Labat said she wants an architect to professionally assess the buildings’ interiors to identify all issues and use that information to build a comprehensive plan. So far, however, she said board members and district staff are the only ones who have assessed the facilities.
“If we were to assess the needs in all facilities in the district, CMSD would have $10 million in facility upgrade costs,” Labat said. “And I’m low-balling it.”
Beyond that, requesting the additional 4 percent each year continues to build the district’s ad valorem funding base, as well as builds a mindset in the community that public schools are a worthy investment, Labat said. Any tax increase that came with that would be “nominal” for individuals and businesses, and investing more locally in the school district — rather than just leaning on federal and state sources — will “pay more dividends” in the long run. This is especially true, she added, in a school district largely populated by underserved, mostly minority, students.
“Federal and state funds can’t be the only resources to fix the infrastructure of CMSD nor can the state fix the issues in our community that we are working to solve,” Labat said. “We have to work collectively to be a part of the solution by investing in the future of Columbus. Our children are the most valuable possession we have, and they should be a priority regardless of where they attend school or their socio-economic status.
“We are Columbus, not a silo of factions of ‘us and them,’” she added. “… Mississippi will continue to accelerate when we invest in human capital infrastructure and innovate. That starts and ends with the public schools.”
Cox, in an email to The Dispatch, agreed with Labat that existing capital improvement funds are not fully addressing the district’s needs, and that depending on ESSER is shortsighted.
“We cannot place a monetary value on “Student Achievement” or “Quality Educational Facilities,” she wrote.
“We are not building a base for future ad valorem requests. We are setting the norm of low expectations. … I am concerned with us not showing a united front to maintain the necessary funds needed to continuously supports our numerous capital improvement projects we have currently.”
Both Spears and Lowndes County Tax Assessor/Collector Greg Andrews said Labat and Cox may still get their way, or close, even without a tax increase.
At Andrews’ urging, CMSD set its budget and ad valorem request based on a mill value — the amount of taxes one mill will generate — of $215,000. However, Andrews told The Dispatch this week he expects the assessed value of real and personal property within the district borders to produce a mill value closer to $219,000. That would generate about $250,000 above the district’s request, more than half of Labat’s 4 percent recommendation, and it’s possible collections could generate the full $462,000.
By law, a school district can collect 104 percent of its request for operations. Any amount over that percentage has to be put in escrow.
The value of a mill has increased each of the last several years, Andrews said, rising from $211,500 in 2018-19 to $216,000 last fiscal year.
Spears said, for his part, he wants the district to continue maintaining a solid savings foundation while addressing needs, including facilities, where they exist.
“We work every day to identify needs in the district, and we are very active in dealing with the recommendations that are brought to us,” he said. “We are also actively working to address needs that will continue to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment for the students.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.