Education taxes a complex set of procedures

By TIM KALICH,

When the Leflore County School District announced recently that it planned to seek another healthy bump in local taxes, it was met with some consternation from the Board of Supervisors and several members of the public.

The increase will be the fourth straight year that school taxes have been raised at least four percent since the 2,400-student district was taken over by the state in 2013.

At last week’s meeting of the supervisors, Greenwood attorney George Whitten Jr. urged the supervisors to test a state law that for decades has required them to rubber-stamp whatever tax request, within certain limits, the school district requests.

He claims there is no court decision in which a tax-levying authority, such as a board of supervisors or a city council, has been ordered to approve a school district’s request for a tax increase.

There is, though, an attorney general’s opinion that says as much. In 2009, in a case pitting the Carroll County School Board against that county’s Board of Supervisors, the state’s chief legal officer affirmed that county supervisors have no discretion over school funding.

They once did, but that was taken away during the 1980s, when the Mississippi Legislature adopted laws that allowed school districts to essentially raise taxes every year as long as they didn’t raise them too much.

How much is too much has been redefined several times.

Currently, the law says that if the school district is asking for no more than a four percent hike in property tax revenue, the tax-levying authority is obligated to set a tax rate that will come up with the money, provided the rate is less than 55 mills for operational purposes. (The Leflore County School District’s tax rate, presently about 36 mills, is nowhere close to that ceiling.)

If a school district asks for an increase of more than 4 percent but not more than seven percent, the hike is still automatic unless enough signatures are gathered on a petition drive to force a voter referendum. In both 2014 and 2015, the Leflore County School District took a seven percent increase, but there was no organized petition drive to stop it either year.

If the proposed increase exceeds seven percent, a referendum is required.

Further complicating the issue is how the increases are calculated from year to year. The law makes allowances for tax increases required to fund new programs mandated by the Legislature or to meet the required local contribution under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula that determines how much state funding each school district receives.

That latter exemption comes into play with Leflore County’s budget request this year. The school district wants almost $260,000 more in local funding, which is technically a five percent increase over this past year. However, $50,000 of the increase is needed to meet the MAEP guidelines and thus is not included in the calculation of what might trigger a referendum. With the $50,000 excluded from the calculation, the increase drops to four percent, giving it clear sailing.

 

To be fair to the county school district, it’s not the only one seeking increases this year. Most school districts in Mississippi have been forced to do the same as the Republican-dominated Legislature has pursued a budget strategy that is shifting the tax burden from the state to local level.

Nor can it be argued that the Leflore County district has been particularly extravagant in its spending. In the 2015-16 school year, the latest for which data is available, it spent just over $10,000 per student, ranking it in the middle of the pack for districts statewide (64th out of 144). Greenwood’s per-pupil spending was five percent more than the county’s.

Still, the longstanding tensions in Mississippi over school taxation continue because the public feels powerless over the increases, especially in places where school boards are appointed or where a state-appointed conservator is calling all the shots, as in Leflore County.

Former state lawmaker Cecil Brown, now a public service commissioner, says when he chaired the House Education Committee, bills were introduced almost every year either to make school boards set their own tax rate, rather than pawning that off on supervisors and city council members, or to again give these locally elected officials the power to override the schools’ requests for more money.

This year, there was an unsuccessful effort in the Legislature to lower the tax-increase threshold so that anything above 2 percent would automatically trigger a referendum.

Brown, a Jackson Democrat and longtime public education supporter, understands the frustration. “You’ve got a lot of unelected people who are raising taxes,” he said.

He suggests that Mississippi should look to see what other states are doing to balance the legitimate needs of schools with the concerns of taxpayers.

“There may always be a better way out there,” he said. “We shouldn’t stick with something because we’ve been doing it that way for 20 or 30 years.”

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com