This year, as in several years past, the Mississippi legislature failed to fully fund public education as required by law.
Yet during those same years the Union County School District has added many new extracurricular activities, has made several improvements and additions to school facilities, has avoided laying off any teachers and has improved aggregate test scores. The county school system ranks fourth in Mississippi in overall test scores, but 131 of the state’s 144 school districts spend more per student.
How has the Union County School District performed so well while being underfunded by ten million dollars?
School Superintendent Ken Basil gives this answer:
That answer may sound simple but it was by no means an easy accomplishment. Many factors and many people contributed to the exceptional results.
Basil cites the county school board as being a major factor. Board members are elected for six-year terms to represent various parts of the county, and it is easy to imagine how individual board members might compete to get a bigger share of scarce resources for their own part of the county.
“This board sees needs district-wide,” says Basil. He says the board maintains a consistent focus on making decisions for the overall good of the school district.
The district maintains four separate school campuses serving 2,800 students spread over the 417 square miles of Union County. New and improved extracurricular programs have been a major focus of the county school system in recent years.
Increased extracurricular inducements
During the last eight years the county district has added an extracurricular drama program which allows students from all four campuses to participate in a musical comedy that is performed every year at the Cine’ Theater in New Albany. Some students are actors. Some are stage hands. Some design and build stage sets. Others handle lighting and dozens of other tasks that go into a large dramatic production. Planning and participating in annual musicals has given county students opportunities they never before had available to them.
Additionally, many county school system students and teachers are involved in the Tallahatchie River Players Youth Production of “Robin Hood” that will be performed at the Cine’ this upcoming weekend, July 30th, 31st and August 1st. Besides county students participating in the production, Trey Humphreys, the archery coach at the county school system’s East Union Campus, taught student actors how to shoot bows and arrows that will be part of the action on stage. Clint Reid, who directs the annual musicals produced by the Union County Schools, is working on the Robin Hood production, and he loaned the production one of his stage sets.
The Union County School District now has a music teacher at each school.
During the last eight years a county-wide band has been added to the extracurricular activities available to county students. Students from Myrtle, West Union and East Union campuses are bused to the Ingomar campus for band practice.
A competitive football program has been added to the Union County School District’s extracurricular activities during the last several years. A football facility has been built and is in use each school year at the county school system’s East Union campus. Each of the four campuses now has a weight training facility, because of the efforts of parent booster clubs.
Every student in the Union County School System now has access to art training and extra-curricular activities related to art.
Superintendent Basil says the substantial increase in available extracurricular activities has had a direct and positive impact on academic performance.
“With all the new extracurricular activities we have now, we have given the students that did not or could not participate in our basketball and baseball programs new outlets,” says Basil. “Therefore, because they have something to look forward to, their attendance is up, grades are up, discipline problems are down — because they must do those things first before we allow them to participate in extra-curricular activities.”
Despite the huge shortfall in state educational appropriations, the Union County School District remains in good financial condition without having increased ad valorem taxes. The district has purchased land for future expansion at Myrtle and currently has a $423,000 septic system improvement underway at the West Union campus, both without borrowed money.
It was clear several years ago that the offices at the Ingomar campus fell far short of the need there. “The principal’s office at Ingomar was not much larger than a big closet, and the reception and booking areas were not as large as a big closet,” said Basil. Four years ago that problem was remedied when a new half-million-dollar school office building was constructed in Ingomar. “It’s an example of the board seeing a need and stepping up to solve the problem,” said Basil.
Vision for the future
“Union County has always been a good school system and we are working to make it better,” said Basil. “I think we are on the cusp of being a great school system.”
As with school administrators around Mississippi, underfunding by the state legislature rankles Ken Basil.
“As good as our county schools are and with the academic and extracurricular programs we have added, just think where the Union County Schools would be with the 10 million dollars we have been cut since 2008,” he says. “You give me half of that, and we are number one in the state and our facilities are very much improved.”
Editor’s note: Those interested in a thorough and objective account of the school funding shortfalls in Mississippi and the competing constitutional amendments on the November ballot may learn more by spending some time with this Ballotpedia analysis: