Reeves not sure if schools will have to dip into reserves

JACKSON — It’s too early to decide whether local school districts should be required to tap into their financial reserves if there’s a dip in state education funding for the coming budget year, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said yesterday.

When Gov. Phil Bryant, a fellow Republican, unveiled his budget last week, he recommended that the 152 local districts should use $73 million, collectively, from their rainy day funds. That would cover a proposed reduction in state funding for the year that begins July 1.

Reeves said he wants to wait a few weeks to see how state tax collections are looking. That might allow legislators to increase the estimate of how much money the state can spend on education and other services in the coming year.

“I don’t think we can commit to specific numbers and the utilization of reserve funds or not until we have a better understanding of what the revenues are going to be,” Reeves said at a forum sponsored by the Capitol press corps and Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government.

Writing a state budget is a long process. Top lawmakers consult with financial experts to determine how much money the state can expect to collect from taxes and fees during a 12-month period. The revenue estimate generally is set more than six months before a fiscal year begins.

It’s been the normal process the past several years for legislators to adjust the estimate, upward or downward, as the start of the fiscal year approaches. That allows them to try to set a budget that more accurately reflects the state’s financial condition.

Legislators face a May 1 deadline to adopt a state budget.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, has also said he hopes to delay work on the budget as long as possible in hopes that the revenue estimate can be increased.

The local school districts, collectively, held $615 million on June 30, the end of last fiscal year, Bryant said. The state Department of Education said the figure was $463 million as of Dec. 31, but about $10 million of that can’t be spent because of a range of legal reasons.

The reserve funds are used, in part, to help districts pay expenses as local tax collections fluctuate throughout the year. Some districts set aside the money for big projects such as school construction.

“A lot of these reserve funds are in districts who properly and appropriately manage their budgets,” Reeves said.

Reeves also repeated his support for proposals to create charter schools, which have greater flexibility than most other public schools to try different academic approaches or set different operating hours.

Reeves said he believes those applying to run charter schools “need to have a proven track record of success,” and the schools should be governed by an independent commission rather than by state or local boards of education. He also said if a child decides to transfer to a charter school, the per-pupil share of public funding should be sent to that charter school.

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