Jeff schools pledge to try again with millage renewal

Jefferson Parish School Board members spent Monday contemplating the failure of what appeared to be a routine millage renewal and wondered if other controversial items on the ballot in Saturday’s election doomed the tax.

“Normally no one opposes them,” Board President Larry Dale said Monday.

The millage comes up for renewal every 10 years and is set to expire in 2014. The $23 million generated by the 7-mill tax accounts for about 30 percent of the total amount the district collects in property taxes.

Mike Delesdernier, vice president of the board, said that the district uses “every cent” of the revenue.

In an emailed statement, the district wrote that it plans to bring the issue to the public for another vote in the fall.

“For now we have to prepare as if we are not going to have it,” Dale said.

He also said that the board should have done a better job on getting information to the public about just how important the renewal was to the district’s budget.

According to the district: “The tax renewal is a very important issue for public education in Jefferson Parish. It’s certainly disappointing that the renewal was not approved, especially since it was such a close vote. We want to use this as an opportunity to improve our communications with the public on the importance of these funds to our continued success.”

The measure received 28,405 votes, or 48 percent, with 31,008 no votes, or 52 percent.

Besides anti-tax momentum and voter turnout connected to the bridge tolls, Dale said another contributing factor was the letter sent to voters by Parish Assessor Thomas Capella on April 19 that said three other millage renewals on the ballot would raise people’s taxes.

The letter did not list the school district measure, but stated “. . . you will be asked to vote on three millage renewals in various areas within Jefferson Parish, which, if passed, will result in an increase on your 2013 property bill.” The words “renewals” and “increase” were in bold type, with “increase” also underlined.

The other side of the letter then listed the water, sewerage and fire protection renewals and the amounts by which property taxes would be raised.

Only the fire tax passed.

“It hurt us pretty badly,” Dale said, of the letter.

Mike Delesdernier, vice president of the School Board, said that if not read carefully, the letter could come across as suggesting that all renewals would result in tax increases.

Dale said that the school district had a balanced budget after many years in the red, and Delesdernier said that the district has already closed schools and reduced and reorganized staff in recent years to improve financial standings — “while improving academic outcomes for kids.”

He also listed some additional pending expenses, including an increase in the cost of pensions and state and federal mandates. He estimated that state-mandated computer testing will cost the district about $40 million.

“Ultimately, if this funding is not renewed, the cuts will present the district with significant financial challenges, especially since we have already made deep cuts to our budget over the past two years,” the written statement from the board said. “More cuts of this magnitude could serve as a threat to the educational progress that the district has made in the past two years.”

The voters have the right to refuse the renewal, and the board and administration can’t count on it being renewed in the fall, Delesdernier said. “We have to prepare for that not to happen.”

For the fall vote, the district pledged to “work with our business and community partners, along with our families and other stakeholders, to ask for community support.”