HomeNewsOPPOSING VIEWS: Commissioner Mike Taylor and Superintendent Marlon King on JMCSS budget,...

OPPOSING VIEWS: Commissioner Mike Taylor and Superintendent Marlon King on JMCSS budget, finances

Madison County Commissioner Mike Taylor and Jackson-Madison County Schools Superintendent Marlon King each issued statements this weekend regarding the budgeting process and overall finances of JMCSS. Here’s Taylor’s statement that he released Friday just before noon:

Dear Editor,

I am writing to address the recent rejection of the school system’s submitted budget and requests by the county commission’s budget committee, and to shed light on the reasons, in my opinion, behind this decision. It is crucial to evaluate the spending priorities of the Jackson-Madison County School Board to ensure that taxpayer dollars are allocated efficiently and effectively.

First and foremost, I want to emphasize that the safety of our students and staff is of utmost importance to this County Commission and I also feel I am safe in saying that it is also a number one priority for Superintendent King. Therefore, the decision by the budget committee to allocate funds for School Resource Officers (SROs) in all 26 schools, as well as the placement of additional SROs in each high school, is commendable. Additionally, the eventual inclusion of an intelligence analyst to monitor security systems and online threats is a proactive measure to ensure a secure learning environment.

Madison County has consistently demonstrated its commitment to funding education above the minimum requirements. Despite having a current student population of 11,800, the county continues to provide funding based on a student level of 13,800. Over the past 16 years, this has resulted in funding that surpasses the minimum requirements by an astonishing $87.5 million. This level of investment in our schools is commendable and speaks to the county’s dedication to education.

Moreover, the Jackson-Madison County School System has benefited from better-than-expected sales tax revenues over the past 24 months, resulting in an additional $8 million for education. When combined with the above maintenance of effort funding, the school system has received $26 million ABOVE the minimum requirements in the last two years alone. These figures demonstrate the significant financial support provided by Madison County to our schools.

In terms of capital funding, the County Commission has approved substantial investments over the past 36 months. This includes $2.8 million for two rounds of school buses. Furthermore, $48 million was allocated for the construction of a new Pope School in 2021. However, it is concerning to note that two years later, no dirt has been turned on the construction project and this vote was unanymous by both the school board and County Commissioners. It is crucial for the school board to ensure that capital funds are utilized effectively and projects are executed in a timely manner.

Between just these two projects, they amount to over $51 million in capital funding.

While discussing expenditures, it is important to address concerns regarding the superintendent’s spending habits. Reports have surfaced highlighting luxurious trips, river boat rides, Grizzly games, filet mignon dinners, luxury car rentals, personal body guard services, massages, and an expenditure of over $20,000.00 to rent Pickwick Landing State Park for a retreat for JMCSS administration, to name just a few. Transparency and accountability are crucial when it comes to managing taxpayer money, and it is essential to thoroughly investigate these allegations.

The educational outcomes within the Jackson-Madison County School System are a cause for concern. The latest TCAP scores indicate that only 19% of third graders are performing at or above third-grade reading levels. Additionally, the three-year average for Madison County stands at 78.8%. These statistics paint a challenging picture and raise questions about the effectiveness of current spending priorities in addressing educational needs and improving student proficiency.

It is also important to address the recent tweets made by Dr. Marlon King, the school superintendent, retweeting a message that referred to the county commission as “corrupt.” Such statements hinder constructive dialogue and fail to acknowledge the significant investments made by the County Commission into our educational system.

Teachers and administrators who are so misinformed to quote Zig Ziglar and to somehow accuse commissioners of not knowing the teachers or students worth, is very disheartening and makes me question that teacher or administrator since they obviously do not care to look at the totality of the circumstances. It is crucial to foster an environment of respectful and open communication to address the challenges our schools face.

In conclusion, it is imperative to reevaluate the spending priorities of the Jackson-Madison County School Board and ensure that taxpayer dollars are used responsibly. While school safety remains a top priority, we must strike a balance between providing a secure environment and allocating resources to improve educational outcomes. The budget committee’s decision to scrutinize the budget and prioritize responsible spending is a step in the right direction. By engaging in thoughtful dialogue and transparent decision-making, we can work together to build a stronger and more effective educational system for the benefit of our students and community.

Sincerely,

Commissioner Mike Taylor

District 10

Here’s Marlon King’s response that he released on social media Friday evening and e-mailed out Saturday morning:

Misinformation around the public schools has been on the rise for some time. This can be seen nationally, statewide and even locally. The misperception of schools teaching CRT and the delivery of inappropriate books to the central office are to name a few. However, the JMCSS budget conversation has been one of contention since the request for additional dollars to support students and staff. In researching the past fund requests from the school system that predates my administration, there seems to be a trend that results in a negative experience. While I thought we had broken the old cycle of a contentious relationship when requesting funds from the Commission by the unanimous approval and support of Pope School, I find myself at a crossroad wondering why the new request has become difficult. After all, JMCSS has made unprecedented progress in so many areas — a Level 5 District, several Reward Schools, improved ACT scores, and 90.5% graduation rate are just to name a few. With these successes and continued momentum around the public school system, my team and I find ourselves combating continued misinformation about the schools. I am the first to admit that we are not where we want to be, but we are getting better. The fact that 60% of all 3rd grade students -statewide -failed to score at expectation on the TCAP ELA exam highlights far-reaching issues with the test and the associated retention law. Increasing support to expand PreK and early learning options would be a productive reaction unlike what has been stated in the excerpt from a commissioner. Some choose instead to recite data void of context.  
The majority of the County Commission fully support our school system and what it is trying to accomplish. The latest round of misinformation comes from the same commissioner who just a few weeks ago stated that the school system has spent over half a billion dollars. This and similar misinformation cannot and will not be allowed to stand without correction and rebuttal. I have never said that the county commission is “corrupt” or that the county commission does not “know the teachers or students’ worth.” And, I agree that misinformation put out by some in the community “hinders constructive dialogue.” I call on all commissioners and other elected officials from spreading such misinformation publicly.   Many of the conversations around the JMCSS budget have been with an estimated 1/5 of the County Commission, not the entire Commission Legislative Body. I truly believe that the full Commission will continue to support the school system.
To say that this administration needs to re-evaluate spending priorities, is to discredit the facts: The school system has come in under budget every year under my administration. The ‘rainy day’ funds have grown from $13 million to $20 million since 2020.  
The expenses of other county departments are not being scrutinized like the expenses of JMCSS, even though JMCSS continues to keep its expenses under budget each year. A few areas of expenditures that are not mentioned include: JMCSS paid the County Finance Department $325,000 last year for providing the same financial services that it provides to other departments at no cost — previous year’s cost around $200,000 plus. In FY22, JMCSS pulled $500,000 from its fund balance to pay the County’s contractual obligation to the Jackson-Madison County Education Foundation. JMCSS continues to pay the County almost $1M per year (with two years left) for an old contract with Ameresco that the County paid off several years ago.   The school system is not set up to fund the county; the county taxpayers’ dollars are to fund schools. The Board and I have been good stewards of the money that the taxpayers have entrusted to us which is evident by coming in under budget for the last three years. We enjoy a great relationship with the great majority of County Commissioners and hope to continue that relationship into the future as we serve the families of Madison County.
However, I cannot allow misinformation and half-truths to be spread without calling them out and correcting the information.  
Below is context around Commissioner Taylor’s excerpt:
• I certainly agree that the safety of our students and employees is of extreme importance. We have been focused on safety for the last few years. Examples of this administration’s focus on safety includes partnering with Maxxguard to cover voids in SRO coverage as well as creating an internal safety team of trained professionals. There are many county departments that support the school system including the Sheriff, Health, and Highway departments. I fully support and appreciate the services those departments provide to our schools and community; however, these are budgets that are independent of the budget for educating our students, and the school’s budget requests need the support of the County as well.  
Since 2020, the County Commission has only provided the minimum funding required by state law for maintenance of effort. The only funding that the County has provided since 2020 over and above maintenance of effort is as follows: metal detectors, buses and approval of building of the New Pope School. While JMCSS appreciates the additional funding for metal detectors, buses, and Pope School, for the FY24 budget JMCSS requested $1.2M after negotiation. Initially the request was $1.8 million (buses), $1.2 million (4 roofs), $1.1 Ameresco payment and increased maintenance of effort by $416,900. These requests were negotiated by the County Budget Committee and unanimously agreed on and I committed to purchase needed roof repairs. After negotiating, I awarded the bids for roofs, and the committee agreed to fund education capital by $1.2 million for teachers’ laptops. Now, the Budget has been rejected after the schools have awarded and committed to purchase the roofs. As to Commissioner Taylor’s comment on our enrollment, he estimated our enrollment to be 11,800 based on the maintenance of effort enrollment number – which does not include our PreK students. With the inclusion of our PreK students we have an enrollment of 12,553. This is important context to note.
• Regarding Pope School, the County Commission chose the site at Ashport Road for Pope School. Some on the County Commission, as well as some on the Board, questioned the site selection because of traffic concerns. These concerns have now come to fruition as the traffic study suggests the need for substantial widening of roads and a roundabout at the intersection of Pleasant Plains and Ashport. These costs will have to be borne by the taxpayers of Madison County. The traffic study as well as environmental studies have caused some delay, but we now understand that site work at the location should begin within the next few weeks. Members of the County Commission have received updates and will continue to receive my biweekly newsletter exclusively for them.  
• Regarding school system spending, since 2020 JMCSS has come in under budget each year and has increased its ‘rainy day fund’ known as fund balance significantly — funds that are designed for emergency use and unforeseen circumstances. We have been very strategic in spending of our operating budget as well as its ESSER funding. We have announced grant awards throughout the course of my tenure — ways to offset revenue. Many purchases to support capital needs have been used from ESSER to relieve the County of additional burden such as locker rooms at JCT and West Bemis, the concession stand at West Bemis, upgrading windows and interiors at Alexander, additional classrooms at Community Montessori, renovating Malesus STEM Innovation Center, providing safety enclosures for schools, and more. In addition, JMCSS has given teachers and staff raises and bonuses, added school nurse positions, absorbed insurance premium increases, and implemented new and innovative programs without asking the County for any contribution toward these expenditures.  
•Starting teacher pay has moved from $38,000 to $42,000 and plans to increase to $46,000 within our budget and without requesting additional funding from the County along with longevity pay for all employees. With this budget, increases for non-certified staff hourly pay will be $3 per hour—again within the budget and without requesting additional funding from the County. The County is funding salary increases for identified County employees by 5% with the exception of the school system employees.  
• Regarding the specific expenditures, the benefactor of these expenses was not the Superintendent but students, staff, leaders, and teachers. There is no secret about the passion and concern that I have for students and staff — people in general! For example, the tickets for the Grizzlies games were for student rewards. Many of the expenses listed were for professional development for administrators and board members. All school systems provide professional development for administrators, and professional development for members of the board of education is required by law. Professional development for administrators is a budget expense, and mostly federal dollars and sponsorships have been used for this rather than money from the County. Expenses for professional development for principals and administrators included a one-time unique professional development session exclusively for JMCSS employees on a river boat ride. Also, the Leadership Retreat expenses for lodging, meals, materials, and presenters at Pickwick Landing is an annual professional development event, which is misrepresented as though the entire Lodge was rented. Additionally, several meals, snacks, shirts, and more were provided by sponsors.  
•For context on spending, consider this: In previous years, the National Institute for School Leaders (NISL) was used by this district for leadership professional development. It costs $252,000 annually for 20 people and $106,000 annually for their materials. When we talk about reevaluating spending priorities, it is context like this that is left out of the conversation. We save Madison County money when professional leadership development is led internally.  
* The seated chair massages in the library during the principal’s leadership development continues to be mentioned, but this was a professional development to demonstrate a new focus on health, social and mental well-being. The We CARE program is another visionary idea that is being prepared for launch for all employees. The program will support a reimbursement to employees at a set amount for massages, weight management programs, a nutrition program, acupuncture, gym membership, and financial literacy courses. Promoting good health for our staff is key to providing quality instructions for students.  
*I have already explained the following expenses, but since the overspending narrative continues to be floated in public by Commissioner Taylor and others, I am compelled to explain again: The school board went to a steakhouse for dinner while on a required professional development and the board members’ per diem allowance has always been used when group lunches or dinners occur. As for a “luxury car rental,” this was a shuttle van for transportation for the board to and from the professional development which was cheaper than each member traveling independently and submitting mileage reimbursement or using a ride share option. The “personal bodyguard services” was an in-house personnel, which is used during large crowd events such as graduation ceremonies. The list of expenditures for $89,000 is over multiple years, but JMCSS has raised over $200,000 in private donations which would cover all of the complained expenses.   We have begun the process of working with the County to ensure misinformation and a negative light is not shed on the school system. Our success has been collective and not completed in a silo. The executive team, chief officers, central office staff, school leaders, teachers, support staff, students, families, commissioners, and community supporters have been the winners in our unprecedented progress. There’s not a better time than now to capitalize on this moment and show support for our public school system. Together, let’s win! 
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