Inside Report: Ascension may tag sales tax boost to special projects

By David Mitchell

dmitchell@theadvocate.com

A wave of industrial development underway in Ascension Parish is boosting the coffers of the parish school system.

Collections in July were the second-highest on record for the school district, at $5.9 million, a 35 percent increase over those in July 2012.

The highest monthly sales tax collections ever were gathered in January, when the school system took in nearly $6.5 million, a 32 percent increase over those in January 2012.

The School Board collects a 2-cent sales tax parishwide.

The school system’s director of business services, Diane Allison, told the board’s Finance Committee on Aug. 27 that July collections were boosted by a one-time audit that brought in $400,000. The rest of the revenue growth, she said, was due to industrial plant expansions and construction.

The School Board, with an eye toward continuing demand to maintain and expand school buildings and other infrastructure, is setting aside the added sales tax revenue for one-time projects.

“We have this huge (industrial) expansion happening right now, and so we’re collecting this additional sales tax,” Superintendent Patrice Pujol told the board. “We know that this isn’t going to last forever.”

The assistant administrator for the parish Sales and Use Tax Authority, Kressy Krennerich, said Sept.3 they are not expecting the sales tax revenue boost to continue long term. She said the growth thus far appears isolated to the industrial expansion projects underway or planned.

She said setting aside the added revenue for special projects “is a smart idea.”

And one of those special projects might be the addition of classrooms for the freshman academies at East Ascension, St. Amant and Dutchtown high schools, in part an effort to forestall the building of another new high school in the parish.

The academies are to help entering freshmen make the transition to high school by providing them their own area on the high school campuses and their own principals.

The new classrooms at the academies would serve to alleviate overcrowding at those high schools, thus giving school officials time to plan for a fifth high school in Ascension, probably in five to seven years.

With the added academy classrooms, school officials would be able to raise the target population for all four grades at East Ascension, St. Amant and Dutchtown to 2,200 students each, up from the current 1,700 to 1,900. Donaldsonville High on the west bank of Ascension has an academy, too, but has enough space on campus, school officials said.

While portions of the academy classrooms proposed at East Ascension and St. Amant would be paid for with funding from a $100 million bond issue in 2009, the additional sales tax revenue would play a part in paying for the rest, including at Dutchtown, if the board were to choose that route.

The parish schools director of planning and construction, Chad Lynch, is compiling cost estimates for the classroom additions at the freshman academies and is expected to report to the School Board, possibly later this month.

Early estimates in May put the cost of those classroom additions at $12.2 million to $14.6 million at each academy.

Fueled in part by the sales tax revenue growth, the school system by June 30 had set aside nearly $23 million in its general fund surplus for major construction.

David J. Mitchell covers Ascension Parish for The Advocate. He can be reached at dmitchell@theadvocate.com.