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A Superintendent earns $18,000 a year — by choice


A Superintendent earns $18,000 a year — by choice

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Billy Joe Ferguson, superintendent of Carroll County School District.
Alexandra Watts

Carroll County School District is six years out of a near bankruptcy — all thanks to the superintendent’s help. MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports on what one man gave up for his school district to survive.

As Superintendent Billy Joe Ferguson walks around JZ George High School in North Carrollton, he has kind words for everyone — from the senior who is doing a work-study program in the library to the sophomore softball player.

The district’s middle school is also housed on the high school campus in a mobile building.

Carroll County School District has around 1,000 students. According to U.S. News and World Report, 85 percent of students are economically disadvantaged which means they are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

The same report finds only 15 percent of the students proficient in mathematics. Ferguson is hoping to hire a math teacher who can help students, but a lack of funds and lower teacher salaries has made that difficult.

Money for more teachers is not the only problem the district has run into, nor is it a new one.

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About six years ago, when Billy Joe Ferguson returned to the district as superintendent for the second time, he was shocked to find the district only had $40,000 in reserve.

The school district was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“I really felt like we were going to be taken over,” Ferguson admits. “If you don’t have enough money, see if you go bankrupt, I thought the state was going to come and take us over.”

As superintendent,.Ferguson’s salary as superintendent was over $80,000. To save the district money, Ferguson decided to retire. To help pay his salary, the district would pay him 25 percent of his salary on top of him drawing from retirement.

“We were on our last straw at that time,” Ferguson recalls. “I saw a way of gaining a good bit of money in our local treasuries by me retiring which saved the school district, in my estimation, of being closed.”

Ferguson now earns $18,000 a year from the district — and it’s all by choice.

Ferguson didn’t give up his salary for attention. He will talk about his pay cut when asked, but also talks about how the district got to that point.

“People forgot about our children. Our children should have been our priority to start with,” he said.

Assistant superintendent Rana Mitchell says part of the district’s money problems stems from a lack of full funding from the state.

“Every year that we are not fully funded by the state, we just kind of dig into a deeper hole that I feel like we’re trying to dig out of,” she said.

According to The Parents’ Campaign Research and Education Fund and the Mississippi Department of Education, the Carroll County School District has been underfunded by more than $4.7 million dollars since 2009.

Twenty-five percent of the district’s funding comes from the local tax base, but Mitchell said talk of raising taxes to help shore up the budget has caused a divide in the community.

“There is an understanding that to fund educational locally, local taxes must go up. Certain people feel a certain way about that. If we were fully funded by the state, local taxes wouldn’t have to be raised.”

State representative Kevin Horan represents parts of Carroll County and said funding issues like this are common throughout the state.

“It’s a sad day when not only Mr. Ferguson but also other individuals in education have to come out of their pocket to take care of the children,” Horan said. “The state can only do so much — we can only appropriate so much, but also, you have to look at the local level.”

Kemeya Richardson’s middle school classes have been the beneficiary of funds from Ferguson’s reduced salary. She teaches various courses relating to technology.

Like Ferguson, she too has made sacrifices. Richardson is from Cleveland, which is about 70 miles each way and drives the distance each morning and afternoon.

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“I was able to get textbooks and to do educational field trips from him taking a pay cut,” she said. “Honestly. Because, if he didn't there wouldn’t be a budget for that.”

Middle schooler Amy Mitchell is the group’s secretary and is learning more about the technology she already loves.

“I have like 15 electronics…maybe,” Mitchell said. “I like different games to see what it’s like about, and when I get bored of them, I get new games.”

The school has also been able to get wifi access for classrooms. Ferguson said parents were also concerned over safety, and the high school was able to put security in place.

He said having the extra money has made a huge difference.

“When you add that much money to a pot, it allows you a little more wiggle room,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about cutting ten people or something like that.”

As Ferguson stands outside, a fleet of school buses has turned the parking lot yellow. His pay cut has allowed for bus drivers to keep their jobs with the district.

Ferguson has a long history with schools in Carroll County.

“I know a lot of the kids' faces because I know their brothers and sister. In fact, I probably taught their parents and grandparents.”

And although he has done a lot, he still wants to do more.

“It’s just like with Patrick Henry [sic]. You know he said, ’I only regret I have one life to give for my country?’ Well, my only regret is that I only have one salary to give to my school district.”

Alexandra Watts is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.