EBR school officials weigh impact of state budget deal

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --  James Crochet, chief financial officer for the East Baton Rouge Parish shool system, presents the $424.6 million proposed 2013-14 general operating budget Thursday. Listening in the background are School Board members Connie Bernard, left, Jerry Arbour, center and Randy Lamana, right.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- James Crochet, chief financial officer for the East Baton Rouge Parish shool system, presents the $424.6 million proposed 2013-14 general operating budget Thursday. Listening in the background are School Board members Connie Bernard, left, Jerry Arbour, center and Randy Lamana, right.

School officials weigh impact of La. budget deal

An 11th-hour legislative deal appears likely to improve the East Baton Rouge Parish school system’s bottom line, but school leaders say they still anticipate making cuts and dipping heavily into their financial reserves.

It’s also not clear if the details of the budget deal worked out by the state Legislature will arrive soon enough to affect the School Board’s current debate over its spending plans for the next fiscal year.

The School Board is debating a proposed $426.6 million budget that includes $7.8 million worth of cuts, amounting to 77 fewer job positions overall.

It marks the fifth consecutive budget year in which the school system is having to cut back to stay in the black.

The deal on the state budget, though, could mean an increase of about $4 million more in per pupil funding through the state’s funding formula known as the Minimum Foundation Program, the school system’s top finance person said Thursday.

“This will change things, hopefully, for the better,” Chief Financial Officer James Crochet told the School Board.

Crochet said he relied on an earlier, less-generous version of the MFP when he prepared the $424.6 million general operating budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year in late May. The School Board held its first debate on the budget Thursday.

Crochet said some of the $4 million in added money, however, is likely to have restrictions on its use and might even require additional spending elsewhere.

He said he will update the budget once the state releases the details but doesn’t know if those will be available by June 20, when the board is supposed to vote on the proposed budget.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor told board members it’s very difficult to plan when “your revenues are flat or nonexistent and your expenses continue to grow.”

He said the system has to develop programming that attracts students and to educate the students who are most in need.

The proposed 2013-14 budget anticipates the school system will end the fiscal year with just $7.3 million in unassigned reserves. That’s likely a conservative estimate based on past history.

The school system projected a similarly small surplus of $6.5 million for 2012-13 when it approved its general operating budget a year ago, but wound up with a surplus nearly four times that size.

The final revised budget for 2012-13 put the surplus at $23.9 million. The surplus was due to a variety of factors, including reduced spending and higher revenue than anticipated.

Board members Jerry Arbour and Vereta Lee pressed Taylor to find money to pay more to teachers who haven’t received a step increase in four years and are set to not receive one for a fifth.

Arbour said a new salary schedule the board approved in March does not do enough to help veteran teachers whose salaries fell behind when the school system didn’t fund step increases in the past. He said newly hired teachers often come out ahead of these veteran teachers.

“We seem to give our people the short end of the stick,” Arbour said. “Why should we give new teachers we hire a benefit that we won’t give to our teachers?”

Lee urged Taylor to catch up on the step increases.

“The morale, I’m telling you, is shot to the roof in this school system,” Lee said.

“If you want to give step increases, the way you do it is you cut salaries and benefits, and you cut people,” Taylor responded. “I’d rather see people working than to see people unemployed.”

The proposed $424.6 million general operating budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year represents a 5.1 percent increase in spending overall. That’s $19.4 million more than expected revenue of $405.2 million. Revenue is projected to decline 0.7 percent.

Taylor, who took over the school system 11 months ago, is asking the School Board to fund a series of new initiatives but cut back in many other areas as well.

Taylor said his plan to cut 41 positions, 24 of them dean of students and 17 of them time-out room moderators, 17, is part of a larger effort to have middle and high schools use personnel similar to how they are used in elementary schools. The estimated savings is $2.7 million.

Much of the new spending, as well as revenue decreases, is being driven by changes in school funding approved by state agencies and the Legislature. These include a projected $6.9 million decrease in the state’s per-pupil share of funding, a $5.6 million increase in employee retirement costs and $4.8 million more for a handful of state-run or authorized schools.

Some of the increased spending for the 2013-14 school year, $7.5 million worth, reflects the already approved growth of the eight different charter schools the district has under its control.