Labat calls for community investment in schools as taxes remain unchanged
Columbus Municipal School District customers will pay a virtually flat ad valorem tax rate this fiscal year, but two council members and Superintendent Cherie Labat believe the move could cost the community in the long run in a number of ways.
Last week, board members voted 3-2 to request $10,792,525.86 in ad valorem taxes for operations in fiscal year 2022, which began July 1. can increase by less than half a thousand. Board members Jason Spears, Josie Shumake and Frederick Sparks passed the measure.
However, Labat – backed by board chair Yvonne Cox and member Telisa Young – recommended asking for an additional $428,682.43, or 4%, which would likely have increased the tax rate by about 2 million.
“I’m doing my best to make sure we work together in mutual agreement on the board,” Cox told The Dispatch on Thursday. “Unfortunately, we see it a little differently. And I mean regretfully.
The request now goes to the city council, which will approve the allocation of local taxes and set the mill rate. A mill is used to determine property taxes and is equal to $10 in actual taxes for every $100,000 of assessed property value not covered by the Homestead Exemption.
Under state law, a public school district can claim collections from any of the previous three fiscal years, plus up to 4%, as its “base” that it can claim ad valorem taxes for operations. CMSD claimed collections for 2019-20, the highest of the three options at around $90,000, but Spears argues the district was in a strong enough financial position not to further burden taxpayers.
District policy dictates that CMSD retain 12 percent of its operating budget, or about $3.95 million, saved as a fund balance each year, Spears said. As the books closed for fiscal 2021, he told The Dispatch the district’s surplus would cover that, in addition to adding at least $1.3 million to a separate fund for capital improvements. , which would then show a balance of more than 4 million dollars.
“Why would we need to ask for more money (ad valorem)?” Spears said. “…We don’t strive to find money to do things when they need to be dealt with.”
Spears also noted that the district is set to receive up to $32 million in COVID relief funds (ESSER) over multiple phases that can be used to offset any “learning loss” caused by the pandemic. This could include anything from curricula and tutors to things like better ventilation systems in school buildings.
Cox and Labat, speaking to The Dispatch on Thursday, said district-wide facility repair needs should be more of an immediate priority. While some exterior issues — such as the high school roof — are currently being resolved, there are interior structural issues on several other campuses that need attention.
Labat said she wanted an architect to professionally assess the interiors of the buildings to identify any issues and use that information to come up with a comprehensive plan. So far, however, she said board members and district staff have been the only ones to assess the facilities.
“If we were to assess needs across all facilities in the district, CMSD would have $10 million in facility upgrade costs,” Labat said. “And I underestimate him.”
Beyond that, asking for the additional 4% each year continues to strengthen the district’s ad valorem funding base, as well as creating a mindset in the community that public schools are a worthwhile investment, Labat said. . Any resulting tax increases would be “nominal” for individuals and businesses, and investing more locally in the school district — rather than just relying on federal and state sources — will “pay more dividends” in the long run. term. This is especially true, she added, in a school district largely populated by underserved, mostly minority students.
“Federal and state funds can’t be the only resources to fix CMSD’s infrastructure, any more than the state can fix the problems in our community that we’re working to fix,” Labat said. “We must work collectively to be part of the solution by investing in the future of Columbus. Our children are the most precious asset we have, and they should be a priority no matter where they attend school or their socioeconomic status.
“We are Columbus, not a silo of ‘us and them’ factions,” she added. “…Mississippi will continue to accelerate as we invest in human capital infrastructure and innovate. It begins and ends with public schools.
Cox, in an email to The Dispatch, agreed with Labat that existing capital improvement funds do not fully meet the district’s needs and that reliance on ESSER is short-sighted.
“We cannot put a monetary value on ‘student successes’ or ‘quality educational institutions,'” she wrote.
“We are not building a base for future ad valorem claims. We set the standard for low expectations. … I fear that we are not showing a united front to maintain the necessary funds to continuously support our many capital improvement projects that we currently have.
Spears and Lowndes County tax assessor/collector Greg Andrews said Labat and Cox could still manage, or close, even without a tax increase.
At Andrews’ urging, CMSD based its budget and ad valorem request on a factory value — the amount of taxes a factory will generate — of $215,000. However, Andrews told The Dispatch this week that he expects the assessed value of real and personal property within the district’s borders to produce a factory value closer to $219,000. This would generate about $250,000 more than the district’s request, more than half of Labat’s 4% recommendation, and it’s possible that collections could generate the full $462,000.
By law, a school district can collect 104% of its transaction request. Any amount above this percentage must be placed in escrow.
The value of a plant has increased in recent years, Andrews said, from $211,500 in 2018-19 to $216,000 last fiscal year.
Spears said, for his part, he wants the district to continue to maintain a strong savings base while meeting needs, including facilities, where they exist.
“We work every day to identify the needs in the neighborhood, and we are very active in dealing with the recommendations that are brought to us,” he said. “We are also actively working to meet the needs that will continue to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment for students.”
Zack Plair is the editor of The Dispatch.