Earlier this month Columbus Municipal School District officials presented a preliminary request for an additional $1.4 million to Lowndes Tax Assessor Greg Andrews. Funded solely by the taxpayers of Columbus, it would have represented the largest school tax increase in recent memory.
Alarmed at the implications of such a tax hike, city officials asked to meet with the district. By the end of those meetings last week, the request had been reduced to $1 million.
You’ll have to excuse us for being skeptical of a tax increase that can be so easily reduced by $400,000. Were those funds not needed after all? If not, why were we being asked for them in the first place?
The plan currently on the table represents an 8.3 percent school tax increase for residents of Columbus. In the meantime, no other school district in our area is expected to increase taxes next year.
We have deep concerns about the planning — or lack thereof — that has gone into CMSD’s 2016-2017 budget.
It appears CMSD board member Jason Spears does, too.
Spears — a financial advisor in his private life — has developed an alternate funding plan that appears to meet the district’s needs without requiring a tax increase.
The plan calls for the use of 16th section land funds plus money from the district’s reserves. By Spears’ estimates, district reserves are currently approximately $4.25 million.
He also suggests that restructuring district debt next school year will dramatically reduce a budget crunch in future years.
The plan has fallen on deaf ears so far.
According to Spears, he presented his plan to board president Angela Verdell and district business administrator Tammie Holmes on Friday during a three-hour meeting. After that meeting Verdell asked him via text not to talk publicly about the budget. She also indicated he could not present his plan at a public hearing and said the $1 million tax increase plan would be passed by the board instead.
A tax increase of this magnitude should not be blindly accepted. It must be justified, and we cannot close our ears to other options.
If the money is available in reserves, using it deserves consideration. After all, those reserves came from years in which we were essentially over-taxed.
This community has shown it will financially support public schools when faced with a clear plan. After all, it overwhelmingly voted in 2007 to borrow up to $22 million to build a new middle school.
A clear justification for these new taxes has not been presented this year.
Hickman, who is ultimately responsible for presenting the budget to the board, has been unresponsive on the issue to this newspaper, Spears and multiple citizens we’ve heard from.
To his credit, Hickman has agreed to participate in a Q&A session with members of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the LINK Trust on Thursday morning. Later that evening at 5 p.m., a public budget hearing will be held at Brandon Central Services.
We encourage all Columbus citizens to come armed with questions. It’s our money. We have the right to demand fiscal responsibility.
The school board is expected to approve next year’s budget at its July 8 meeting.
■ CMSD Superintendent:
■ CMSD Board members:
Currie Fisher: 662-570-1085
Jo Shumake: 662-328-1927
Freddie Sparks: 662-574-1812
Jason Spears: 662-816-0967
Angela Verdell: 662-570-1327
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.