Budget hearings are routinely brief and poorly attended, so there was nothing too unusual this past week when no taxpayers showed up to express an opinion about the Leflore County Board of Supervisors’ tax-and-spending plan that takes effect Oct. 1.
Most anyone who wanted to grouse about property taxes — either the continued rise on farmland assessments or the 14 percent jump in school taxes — had already done so in earlier meetings of the board.
Still, the discussion by supervisors, after the formal vote had been taken to adopt the budget, was worth hearing, as it raised a question that is going to come up again, and perhaps several times, over the next few years: Is the consolidation of the Greenwood and Leflore County school districts going to save any money?
District 1’s Sam Abraham, who represents an area of the county where property values (and thus taxes) are the highest, said he understood why those in charge of the merger might not have put cost-cutting high on their agenda during the six months they realistically had to pull off the consolidation. They should, however, be working on expense cuts before they come back next year with their revenue request, he said.
If the schools, Abraham warned, ask again for another tax increase on top of the 29 percent hike those in the county have seen since 2011, he will vote against it.
If he does, it would be a symbolic protest, as county supervisors in all practicality have no say on school taxes. They are legally obligated to levy whatever millage it takes to produce the local revenue the school system says it needs in order to operate. If a majority on the Board of Supervisors were to refuse to do this, most likely a court would force them to.
Also, it should be emphasized that the main reason school taxes have risen so fast is because the county has been chronically underinvesting in its public schools.
When the state took over the failing Leflore County School District in 2013, one thing the state overseers did was begin to get the local contribution up with year-over-year increases of 3% to 7%. Then, consolidation created another issue, requiring that the tax burden for public education be equalized between those who live in Greenwood and those who live outside of it. The new countywide millage rate meant a 14% increase for county residents but a 21% decrease for city residents.
Greenwood taxpayers aren’t going to be feeling sorry for those who live outside the city limits. For decades, Greenwood residents have gotten the short end of the stick, paying county taxes, for which they received few services in return, on top of city taxes. They would say it was past time for a fairer distribution of the tax burden.
That said, Abraham is correct when he asserts that consolidation of the school systems should save money. It absolutely should. There is no way with proper fiscal management that the combination of two smaller entities into one larger one shouldn’t produce cost savings unless those in charge are not really trying to find them.
It does not appear so far that either the Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District’s board or Superintendent Mary Brown has been looking all that hard at reducing expenditures.
In a school system, there are only two places to effect significant savings — people and buildings. Neither one of those has been addressed. Employment in the consolidated district is slightly higher than it was last year in the two separate districts combined, Brown acknowledged this past week at a civic club talk. And there was zero effort to close or combine schools in advance of the consolidation, even though it’s obvious that the countywide district has too many buildings for the number of students enrolled.
Brown, as has every superintendent before her, is asking for community support. She’s more likely to get it if she right-sizes the district in terms of payroll and infrastructure.
This community needs to build some new schools. To make that happen is going to require a bond issue. If you expect to get 60 percent of voters to voluntarily raise their taxes to construct a new school, you’d better show them that you’re willing to help finance the project by merging or closing others.
Sam Abraham was talking this past week about casting a protest vote on school taxes. What the school district needs to avoid is letting a bond-issue referendum turn into a communitywide dispute.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.