HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Hattiesburg Public School Interim Superintendent Greg Ladner sat down with residents, parents and teachers to break down the district's financial crisis and discuss plans for its future.
"Your school is in transition," Ladner said. "It is a place that used to have 8,000 students. It is a place that everybody in the state used to come look at the wonderful programs that are going on. It is a place in transition. I'm not so sure the Hattiesburg Public School District as we knew it can be resurrected, but I'll tell you what can happen with it. It can be revisited. It can be rebirthed. It can be brought back maybe even stronger and better than ever before, but you have to not turn a blind eye to who we are currently serving in our district."
"Our ADA in Hattiesburg is falling through the floor, you all," Ladner said. "Our district has an ADA average of 91.29 percent. That's well below the state average. This year, when they took our snapshot of ADA in September and October, which is when they then go make the calculations for MAEP state monies for next year, we lost $700,000 because an additional 135, now about 500 on any given day, an additional 135 students are missing daily. While our enrollment is decreasing over the over the past three years, don't go add 50 teachers that you don't even need to the tune of $1.9 million reoccurring dollars a year. We've been losing enrollment and should've been cutting three years ago a little, and then last year a little. The drastic measures that are being made are because we should have done a hiring freeze three years ago. We really should have done it five years ago."
Ladner said Thursday he is cutting 34 teaching positions and 14 central office and administrative positions next school year.
"The highest percentage that lost positions were taken out of the central office and the administration," he said.
In the next three to five years as the district recovers financially, Ladner said he would like to see total employment decrease. Right now, he said the district has about 800 employees, and he would like there to be between 690 and 700 employees.
He said he was not expecting the district to have a "completely depleted fund balance" when he arrived in December.
"That's a $35 million dollar budget right there," Ladner said as he showed the group a graph of the district's spending. "It was found that we were spending approximately $3.4 million a month. If you do the math, 3.4 times 12, you see that your revenues are not going to be able to cover your expenditures."
Ladner said he had several goals for the district when he arrived. The first, to set up a more stable budget for the district for next school year.
"I'm here to help fix the fiscal issue, and we're working on it," he said. "It's going to get resolved. You know why? Because either this board some of the right things or either the state's going to come take it over."
Ladner said right now the district has about $400,000 in its general fund balance, and, ideally, that should be about $4 million. He said it is still too close to calculate if the district will absolutely make it to June 30 with the money it has.
Once the finances are in order, Ladner said the district can focus on improving its performance.
"We are probably at a D performing school across this state," he said."How can we in Hattiesburg say 'we are great' if we can't even perform at the state average?"
Ebony Murray has three children in Hattiebsurg Public Schools and was one of several parents who expressed concern about the district's future leadership and the quality of its education.
"What is going to happen with our education, with our kids?" she asked. "They're already performing below the state standard, and the state standard's not that high. I'm from Massachusetts. It's not that high. Our kids are being forgotten about because now we're trying to figure out where the leaders, what they're doing with the money that's supposed to fund our kids' education."
Ladner agreed that choosing the right leadership for the district will be essential for its success.
"This board needs to choose very carefully," he said. "This decision is going to be very vital for this board."
Community members said they want to be a part of choosing their district's next superintendent.
"As an employee, I am vested," said teacher and parent Michelle Williams. "I'll make major sacrifices: my family, my time, my money, which I don't get much of anyway, for these children that I am given power over for the days that I have them in a year. What do we do to make sure that we have the leader that is for the children?"
Murray said, "What is it that we can do as parents?"
Ladner listed six things parents can do to help improve education and get involved. He said to be sure students do the best that they can in their classes, attend school and are well behaved when they're there.
"We cannot educate them if they're on their way to the principal's office for misbehaving," he said.
Ladner said it will be essential for the board and parents to have two-way communication, for parents to participate and to work the best they can with the governance of their school system.
By the end of the meeting, the room was focused on creating a better future for the district.
"We've got to come out of this meeting as citizens of Hattiesburg saying we're going to support our schools," Ken Smith said. "The way your school goes is the way this city goes."
HPSD teacher Cissy Smith said, "You forget that there are actual people that your negative attitude affects. I finally had to be at peace with 'the money's gone. We don't know where it went.' But we still have a job to do."