HOUSTON – With federal dollars drying up, the Mississippi Legislature hesitant to adequately fund education and local school board trustees hesitant to raise taxes, the Houston School District is looking at cutting teaching positions.
The Houston School Board voted to hire a new band director at a special called meeting June 19, but the current fiscal outlook had Superintendent Dr. Steve Coker inform the board they will probably not hire an assistant band director this year and from five to six teaching positions will probably be cut. Coker added if the district’s fiscal and student population trend continues, the district will probably be forced to cut an additional five to six teaching positions next year.
The board voted to hire James Stites, an assistant band director and music teacher at Southaven High School, with the understanding he would not have an assistant and he needed to grow the program.
Stites’ hiring was prompted by Houston band director Richard Shirey and assistant band director Josh Robinson taking jobs at other school districts.
Trustees Carol Byrne, Daniel Heeringa and school board president Bart Munlin expressed their concerns in not hiring an assistant band director and asked Coker for details about the move and what options the district might have.
“When we met last year you told me the No. 1 priority was academics and no failing schools,” said Coker. “We are at the point where we have to make some cuts. We are going to have to adjust.”
Coker said Houston School District’s student population has declined for several years, federal dollars are being cut and the Mississippi Legislature has failed to adequately fund education for the past several years.
Coker also said Houston Middle School band numbers are not strong. He said in interviewing Stites he stressed the need for more students to be involved in band.
The district uses the term teaching-unit to define teaching positions and the average unit costs the district about $60,000 with benefits, wages and expenses.
Superintendents are technically the CEO of a district and charged with managing finances through the year and presenting trustees with an initial budget. By law trustees can’t hire personnel without the recommendation of the superintendent.
Coker said the district is on lean times and he hopes it will grow out of the current situation with the band and with revenue concerns.
“We are $200,000 over last year and I will probably have to pull another unit to balance the budget,” said Coker. “I’m looking at math teachers, English teachers and elementary school teachers. We have cut at the edges for several years and now we are having to cut where it hurts.”
Approximately 85-percent of the district’s disposable budget is personnel and instruction. The remaining 15-percent buys and maintains buses, pays utilities and other school costs outside of buildings and maintenance.
Heeringa said the No. 1 concern he heard from parents was the district’s commitment to the arts.
“I also understand we have cut the music programs at the upper and lower elementary schools,” said Heeringa. “I don’t think it is fair to say we need improvement at the middle school if there is not support at the elementary level.”
Byrne suggested offering stipends, similar to what is offered to coaches, to get teachers to be instructors to band students.
“We’re talking $300 to $500 for specific duties compared to $30,000 for a teacher,” said Byrne. “I just think it is a shame our kids can’t read music when they get into the high school band.”
Byrne and Munlin have been longtime supporters of the Houston Band program with Munlin leading a push in the community to fund the construction of a new band hall at Houston High School.
“You know where I stand,” said Munlin. “I put a lot of time in getting us a facility. All I am saying is don’t mark it off yet. I think we need to look outside the box and see what is out there.”
The Houston School Board will begin working with details of its 2013-14 budget next month.
The motion to hire Stites was made by Heeringa, seconded by Trustee Marvin Beard and supported by Munlin and Byrne. Trustee Zach Huffman, who will resign from the board June 30, was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.