Inside Report: East Feliciana school tax in works

East Feliciana school tax in works

By James Minton

Baker-Zachary bureau

How do you reverse a downward spiral that’s been under way for 30 years or more?

Members of the East Feliciana Parish School Board hope a property tax increase — 38 mills — will provide the resources needed to pull the beleaguered school system out of a dive that’s threatening to undo any incremental gains of recent years.

The school system needs to improve student achievement and make the schools attractive enough to increase student enrollment or at least maintain it where it now stands. Higher salaries might attract more of the kind of teachers needed to do the job and stay around for more than a year.

But the continuing decline in student enrollment is reducing the amount of state money available to hire those good teachers. It’s a hard cycle to break.

The School Board thinks a 38-mill property tax on the April 6 ballot will provide money to raise salaries, provide new technology, maintain aging school buildings and pay for instructional materials for new national curriculum standards.

To put the amount of the proposed tax increase in perspective, 38 mills is a shade over 80 percent of the total parish millage — 47.23 mills — a Clinton resident paid in 2012 taxes, not counting any city taxes or fire protection structure fees.

The School Board’s financial adviser, Tommy LeJeune, calculated the impact of a new 38-mill tax on homeowners with property valued by the assessor from $100,000 to $250,000, adjusted for the homestead exemption.

The parish tax this year on a $100,000 house was $119, and a 38-mill tax increase would hike it by $95 next year to a total of $214.

On a house valued at $250,000, the total tax bill would go from $831 this year to $1,496 next year, according to the accountant’s figures.

East Feliciana Parish has the lowest property tax millage in the state, and voters have not approved a tax increase for schools in 31 years. They have renewed a 17-mill property tax for employee salaries over the years, however, and with a 3.34-mill tax authorized by the state constitution, the board’s current property tax levy is 20.34 mills.

The board also levies a 2 percent sales tax for schools.

In 1993, then-Sheriff T.R. “Randy” Maglone proposed a 36-mill tax for his operations, saying he could no longer balance his budget with income derived from housing Cuban detainees for federal immigration authorities.

The tax failed by 606 votes, leaving only a 5.25-mill tax on the books. Today, Sheriff Talmadge Bunch keeps state prisoners, including work-release inmates, to pick up additional revenue for his office.

School Board members said during a discussion the measure will pass if every member gets out and explains the need for new revenues.

Because East Feliciana has the lowest property taxes in the state, railroads can claim their domicile in the parish and save on their tax bills.

LeJeune estimated the School Board will lose about $342,500 if the railroads change their address, but the tax would bring in about $4.4 million and the state Minimum Foundation Program would kick in about $1.4 million more, assuming that student enrollment remains stable.

Having cut the budget and reduced the staff, board members now feel the time is right for asking for more money.

James Minton covers Baker, Zachary and the Felicianas for The Advocate. His email address is jminton@theadvocate.com.