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Billy Joe Ferguson works full time as the superintendent of the Carroll County School District, but he’s paid just $18,000 a year, less than most first-year teachers in Mississippi. That’s because two years ago, he decided his district just couldn’t afford his $80,000-plus a year salary anymore. His sprawling but largely rural district in central Mississippi has struggled to make ends meet in part, he says, because the state refuses to send Carroll County the funding to which it’s entitled. So Ferguson is officially retired and drawing a small pension, even though he’s kept his title and continues working long hours to keep his tiny district going.

Now in his fourth term, he still works at least 40 hours a week in his old capacity and still has many of the frustrations of the job. He recently wrote an open letter to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant detailing the “wretched conditions that exist here” due to a lack of state funding. The 1,009-student district has about a 90 percent poverty rate, Ferguson wrote.

Public school underfunding
Billy Joe Ferguson is in his fourth term as superintendent, but only receives a pension in order to save his struggling district money. Credit: Graphic: Jill Barshay

Currently, the state uses the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to distribute funding to schools. The law uses a formula to equally spread funds throughout the state, but since its adoption in 1997, the program has been chronically underfunded. Legislators have fully funded MAEP just twice, and educators say schools have been underfunded by $1.5 billion since 2006.

In November 2016, Mississippians will get to vote on a potential amendment to the constitution that would require the state to provide an “adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”

The Hechinger Report spoke with Ferguson to learn more about the how underfunding affects his school district.

Q: You are technically retired, but you still work a full-time job and now you earn just $18,000 a year. How does this work?

A: In Mississippi, if you retire you can draw up to 25 percent of your salary. This is not 25 percent of my salary so I’m actually taking less than what I could take. I’ve done this for two years with my salary. Really it’s just an effort on my part to try to help the district overcome a shortage of money.

Q: What did you earn before this?

A: About $86 or $87,000, something like that.

Q: Has this extra money helped the district?

A: Sure. I don’t charge any travel money when I go somewhere…I’m doing everything I can do to try to hopefully survive. That was my goal for the last two years, to help try and conserve money.

Q: You mentioned in your letter to Gov. Bryant that your district has been “severely impacted” by a lack of funds. How so?

A: Carroll County has 635 square miles. That’s a large area for one school district. The density of Carroll County is not very high, so that means we have to run long bus routes and travel a long time to get a load of kids. We put a lot miles on our school buses on dirt roads and so the wear and tear for our transportation is greater than a typical school district in Mississippi. It takes more of our money to maintain our transportation than it would in a typical district. If we had not been shorted the last six or seven years from the MAEP money, I would not have this old fleet of buses.[pullquote author=”Billy Joe Ferguson, Carroll County schools superintendent” description=”” style=”new-pullquote”]“There is no excuse for not giving us at least enough money to just to be adequate”[/pullquote]

Q: How does the underfunding impact your students and teachers?

A: I feel like it has a great impact. If I hire a teacher, I’m looking to hire a teacher with the least amount of experience because I can’t hire a teacher that costs twice what a beginning teacher would cost. Last year we had 10 or 11 people that retired or left. And so I replaced them with lower-paying people. Textbooks are so high. I’ve got expenses on school buses and teacher salaries, those are things that have to be there (in the budget) when it comes down to it. The teachers make due. They find things on the Internet and we try to buy up to date workbooks and things like that so the kids don’t get short-changed. But it would be better if we just had money.

Q: You also mentioned in your letter that without enough funding, your district “could easily fall.” Do you think your district could be shut down?

A: We’re going to survive, I believe that. I think we’ve done well with what we have and I’m proud of our school district. In life, when you’re poor you have to do without. We’re doing just the bare, essential things. I need more staff, it would really help. I don’t bemoan the fact that we can’t do it, I just feel like it’s an injustice…If (legislators) have the money and they won’t do it, that’s what bothers me. There is no excuse for not giving us at least enough money to just to be adequate.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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