JMCSS budget up for discussion after tense meeting last week

The Madison County Commission’s budget committee is made of mostly commissioners.

But two private citizens are on that committee as well – business owner Marcus Love and Greg Parsons, market president at FirstBank.

The committee – including Love and Parsons – have met with every department head in county government over the past six weeks to get their budget requests and needs for the coming fiscal year including going to some of those departments for these meetings and met with some of those a second and third time to discuss specific line items in their budget requests and proposals.

The committee met with Jackson-Madison County Schools Superintendent Marlon King last week. It was actually the third scheduled meeting between King and the committee. The first one was the original budget hearing on April 20 in which he submitted a number of requested items he asked for the Commission to choose from to fund.

The second was a budget meeting in early May that King did not attend, frustrating members of the committee.

King, a couple members of his leadership team and a couple members of the JMCSS Board were present for this meeting along with the committee, other Commissioners, other department heads and a few citizens of the county – totaling about a couple dozen people filling the room to near capacity with a couple people standing just outside the door and a couple other department heads going back to their offices in the County Finance Complex and waiting for their time to talk after King’s presentation was complete.

King did an extended recap of his goals and methods of running the district, recruiting and retaining faculty, rewarding employees and students for jobs well done, changing the overall culture in the Central Office and all 26 schools and trying to improve facilities while also dealing with continued fallout from the pandemic.

He unofficially gave his budget request to the committee at last week’s meeting, asking for the maintenance of effort that was taken away from the district in 2020 be restored. He also asked for the district’s Amaresco payment owed to the County to be forgiven.

At different times during the presentation, there would be chatter among people sitting either at the committee table or around the edge of the room.

And Parsons had listened to King’s presentation, heard some of the muffled talk around the room and still was in a tough spot when King asked if there were any questions.

“I’m an interested observer – a volunteer,” Parsons said. “But there’s a lot of stuff going around this table that I’m not privy too, and honestly, I don’t want to be.

“This sounds like a gigantic shambled mess, and it’s kind of embarrassing that leaders in our community have to sit here and go through something like this.”

Parsons said he felt like he hadn’t had enough time to go through the budget King was asking for to look at each item and get a gauge in his own mind of how it looks.

“I feel like there’s a little bit of fault on both sides,” Parsons said. “There’s numbers flying around on both sides and it’s a lot.

“We asked other departments to go through this process in a timely manner so that we wouldn’t be in this situation. I don’t understand why we haven’t had this already.”

King had sent the committee a budget request in a spreadsheet the night before.

“A lot of the folks sitting in this room had this done months ago, because this is a process that has to be part of this,” Parsons said. “I’m a fan. My kids have been involved with the public school system. I want to see it do well and fund what you need. But we need time to look this over.”

Parson’s later said he simply wanted to look at a budget and be able to see what’s the reasoning for each Iine item.

“Other than that, what are we doing here today?” Parsons asked.

King is scheduled to meet with the committee on Tuesday, May 30, for another discussion of what he needs and what the Commission is willing and able to fund.

Here are a few questions answered from that discussion as well as other issues brought up in recent weeks:

Question: How much money is the County required to budget for the school system?

Answer: While that number fluctuates based on enrollment, it stays around $40 million each year.

Q: What is maintenance of effort (MOE)?

A: That is the amount the County is required to fund the district based on what it budgeted the year before.

Q: How much did the County budget for JMCSS last year?

A: $48.1 million. The funding for the school system reached $48.5 million and stayed there until 2020. JMCSS has consistently lost enrollment by a varying number of students – less than 1 percent each year – for about a decade now. But County funding for the district was never reduced until the pandemic caused everyone in charge of County budgeting to try to cut where they could. The County Commission decided then to reduce MOE based on that enrollment decrease – the only reason they’re allowed to decrease MOE. They reduced it by $416,900. According to Finance Director Karen Bell, it could’ve been reduced by more than $700,000.

Q: So is the County giving JMCSS more money than it’s required to each year?

A: In a way, yes. The $40 million estimation is what’s required based on enrollment. But $48.1 million is required because that’s how much the County funded in the previous year. A drop in enrollment is the only reason to decrease that number. During King’s presentation, budget committee chairman Carl Alexander displayed a spreadsheet showing how JMCSS has lost enrollment every year since 2007 except one. He said the County could’ve cut JMCSS funding by $3.5 million in 2007, 2008 and 2009. But the Commission never did. And since that number was never reduced until 2020 (and they’re still funding by more than $8 million over required each year now), Alexander said the total of all those years over required number is about $87.5 million JMCSS has received that the County wasn’t required to fund.

Q: What’s the Amaresco payment?

A: When former Superintendent Nancy Zambito asked for funding for a project, JMCSS borrowed the money to fund it. And after a few years, the County decided to pay off that debt for the school system with the intention of having JMCSS pay that money back to the County interest free to save JMCSS the interest rate. The District pays more than $400,000 per year in Ameresco, and they’re set to pay that much every year until June 30, 2025.

Q: How much money has JMCSS received in three waves of ESSER funding?

A: ESSER funding is federal money that was sent to school districts across the country to help fund efforts to make up learning loss suffered in the pandemic. Commissioner Mike Taylor was quoted last week in the Republican caucus meeting held on May 10 that JMCSS had spent “half a billion dollars.” The District received a total of $56.3 million. Half a billion would be $500 million. Taylor’s comment was later classified as an exaggeration.

Q: Does the County fund the entire JMCSS budget?

A: No. The $48.1 million from Madison County is less than half of the JMCSS budget, which is more than $110 million. The rest of that money comes from state and federal funds.

Q: What’s next in the budget process?

A: King and the budget committee meet on May 30 to discuss the budget that King submitted via e-mail the following morning on May 19. The school board will need to approve the budget before it’s officially sent to the County Commission for an official budget request. Each entity has a required 10 days to look at the budget before they vote to approve or not. The County must officially ratify its entire budget by June 30.

Brandon Shields,