What is meaning of ‘local’
My 12-year-old plays baseball in a league that requires runners to stay on the base until the pitch. Consequently, most games devolve into red-faced shouting over whether a “pitch” begins with arm movement or the actual release of the ball.
Perhaps giving proof to the old adage that adults are just children with more body hair, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration launched an offensive last week to say local tax dollars are not actually being used to help pay for some students to go to private schools. The governor’s office also stated that whoever did not accept the spin lacked integrity.
Recent events may have required a new narrative on Jindal’s signature voucher program.
The Tangipahoa Parish School District has asked the federal judge overseeing its school desegregation to suspend the Student Scholarship Program, as the vouchers are called. School officials say they can’t afford the programs ordered by the federal judge because of a decrease in funds caused by the vouchers.
Meanwhile, some residents in St. Tammany Parish, apparently not embracing the administration’s nuanced definition of “local,” expressed outrage that local property and sales taxes were being spent to help students attend private or parochial schools.
“No local funds, not one dime of property ad valorem taxes or of property taxes or of any millages, any taxes, can be traced to a single scholarship applicant,” said Jimmy Faircloth, the Pineville lawyer who is defending state government in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a pivotal part of the Jindal education overhaul. Local school districts, which sued the state, failed to document an accounting trail between the actual local dollars and the vouchers, Faircloth said last week.
“He’s saying, ‘We didn’t physically touch your local dollars. Instead, we’re taking the same amount out of your state portion of the MFP,’” said Robert L. Hammonds, a Baton Rouge lawyer who represents Louisiana School Boards Association in the lawsuit.
Basically, by reducing the amount of state payments to local districts, local taxpayers must use more local dollars to operate their public schools, Hammonds said.
The Minimum Foundation Program, called MFP, is a complex formula enshrined in the Louisiana Constitution that determines how much money is spent schooling Louisiana students. Though local school districts control the taxes they collect, the MFP formula requires a local contribution.
Hammonds said the state Department of Education in late September calculated that the vouchers will cost about $25 million this fiscal year. The state is paying about $12 million, leaving about $13 million for local school districts, he said.
Perhaps Education Superintendent John White explained it more succinctly during a March 29 legislative hearing. The state writes a check to the private schools and discounts local school districts the same amount, he said.
“Never does a local school district have to write a check and send local dollars,” White said.
In an analysis written after Act 2, which authorizes the voucher program, had been passed by both chambers, the Legislative Fiscal Office stated: “Local school districts will be responsible for a portion of the cost of the Student Scholarship Program.”
The St. Tammany Parish School Board convened meetings during the second week of October to discuss the mechanics.
About 300 parents and teachers showed up at Slidell High School and 200 or so at Fontainebleau High School near Mandeville. The explanation angered many, said Jack Loup, president of the parish school board.
Funding for 36,557 public school students is expected to drop $2.1 million because of students who reside in St. Tammany Parish, but do not attend public schools there, Loup said.
Public school systems are entering the fourth year in row without an increase to the MFP. The additional decrease in funding this year could prompt further cuts, such as reassigning school librarians, counselors and assistant principals and delaying building maintenance, Loup said.
The Louisiana Constitution — and the statutes stemming from Article VIII — states MFP money goes “to public elementary and secondary schools.”
The Jindal administration argues that provision should be interpreted to mean the funding follows the child. “It’s only local funds, if you believe all funds formulated through the MFP belong to the school districts,” Faircloth said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.