Inside Report: Board faces some tough budget choices

Summer school is in session for the Lafayette Parish School Board, and the final exam is adopting a balanced budget.

Don’t expect an easy A — not when there’s a $23 million hole to fill.

The school district’s general fund is a $272 million budget that includes those costs linked to the classroom — salaries of teachers, instructional costs, like textbooks and other materials, and the salaries of those employees who give support to what happens in the classroom, from custodians to the superintendent.

Cuts are inevitable, though no final decisions on where to offset the more than $20 million have been made.

At least $76 million is in the school board’s rainy day fund. About $61 million is set aside as part of board policy to cover three months of operating expenses. Only about $5 million isn’t dedicated to other expenses. The board was asked to alter its three-month safety net to two or 2.5 months to free up more money to cover the shortfall.

During a May retreat, some board members seemed supportive of the idea, but during a June 5 meeting, member Shelton Cobb’s suggestion to use all but 2.5 months of the rainy day fund failed. Support of Cobb’s motion could have freed up about $11 million and a total of $16 million when counting the non-dedicated funds in the account.

It wouldn’t have solved the budget problem completely, but it would have been a nice start to a bridge to close the gap.

But approval of Cobb’s suggestion would have only been a one-year fix to the board’s budget problems, which are only expected to grow next year. This spring, district Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry warned that the shortfall would expand over the next four years as the district loses more state and local funding that will follow students to charter schools.

About $12 million in the district’s state funding will transfer out to charter and other special state schools, including three new charter schools that open in August. Those local charter schools plan to expand over the next three years, and two more charters also will be built in the parish.

Proposals to cut big-ticket items in the district could offset the shortfall, but the trade-off is less support for teachers. Some of the suggestions include the elimination of the district’s school resource officer program, which places trained police officers on campuses; and the instructional strategist program, where certified teachers work with classroom teachers to develop lesson plans. The funding gap also caused the district to review its staffing ratios, and 13 assistant principal positions and 15 counselor positions are on the table to be cut.

On June 5, the board rejected the recommendation that the district retain the 13 assistant principal positions with reserves. Cuts of the counselor and assistant principal positions would mean a loss of 28 jobs, and the district will have to impose a reduction in force. Board members have said they don’t want to lose the jobs and hope to find another funding source. They think there’s money to be found elsewhere in the general fund by cuts at the central office and a tougher review of spending on travel to conferences and other expenses. The school system needs to live within its means, so extra programs should be contingent upon the budget, said member Tommy Angelle during a recent meeting.

Pending board decisions, there could be up to 30 students in some classes, fewer assistant principals and counselors on campuses and no alternative site to help with troubled students.

That could mean a very different school year come August.

Marsha Sills covers education for The Acadiana Advocate. Follow her on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.