East Baton Rouge School Board to tackle budget on Thursday

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is scheduled Thursday to approve its annual operating budget, but board members remain divided on some of Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s proposed spending and cutting plans, as well as what to do with greater-than-expected state education funding.

The School Board is debating a proposed $426.6 million budget that includes $6.2 million worth of cuts.

That budget, however, doesn’t reflect the state education funding formula the Legislature approved as it finished its session on June 6.

That brings an estimated $69 million in extra funding to public schools statewide, about half of which is earmarked for a pay raise for teachers and other certified school employees.

East Baton Rouge Parish school officials estimate about $2.7 million of its added funding will be unrestricted.

There’s also some additional money coming in 2013-14 thanks to the Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that the state’s private school voucher funding unconstitutionally tapped the state’s education funding program known as the Minimum Foundation Program.

The Legislature continued the voucher program but is using the state’s general revenue to fund it instead.

This marks the fifth consecutive budget year in which the East Baton Rouge school system must cut back to stay in the black. Even so, Taylor is drawing heavily on the school system’s reserves to develop programming that attracts students and to educate students who are most in need.

Board member Connie Bernard is not happy with the drawdown, noting that the initial budget calls for the school system to spend $19 million more than it is taking in revenue — $424.6 million versus $405.2 million. Bernard said that’s too much of a drawdown.

“That would be like if my husband gambled away or otherwise frittered away 73 percent of our personal savings,” Bernard said.

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, due to a variety of factors, including reduced spending and higher revenue than anticipated.

Taylor said his plan to cut 41 positions — 24 of them deans of students and 17 of them time-out room moderators — 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.

One part of the plan is to have teachers rotate in and out of time-out rooms during free time during the day.

Board Vice President Tarvald Smith worries about the difficulty creating a workable rotation schedule.

“I don’t see how rotating the teachers in and out is going to work,” Smith said.

Taylor is also having a hard time persuading the board to go along with his proposal to hire the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Learning to train teachers in the new Common Core educational standards going into effect in Louisiana and 44 other states.

The board on June 6 initially balked at the almost $2.7 million proposed contract — more than $1 million the first year and more than $2.6 million the next three years — but advanced it on the second try. Several board members still have questions.

“I want to see more information,” board member Barbara Freiberg said. She said she likes what’s she’s seen of the Institute’s work, but wants to know the alternatives.

Bernard said she’s been inundated with calls since raising questions publicly about the proposal. She said she’s even more skeptical as a result.

“I don’t see why we would send this out of state when there are people in the state who can do this,” she said.

Some board members have other spending priorities.

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

Much of the new spending 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.