Lafayette school board talks new taxes during retreat

Advocate Staff Photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Lafayette Parish School Board President Shelton Cobb discusses the financial needs of the parish school system at a retreat held Saturday morning at the board office. The board also discussed discussed putting a tax proposal on the ballot this spring.
Advocate Staff Photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Lafayette Parish School Board President Shelton Cobb discusses the financial needs of the parish school system at a retreat held Saturday morning at the board office. The board also discussed discussed putting a tax proposal on the ballot this spring.

Superintendent warns of possible $14 million deficit

Lafayette Parish voters deserve the right to decide if they want to support new taxes for schools, School Board member Hunter Beasley said Saturday during a board retreat to discuss ways to pay for system improvements.

The board met to discuss different tax options proposed by a community education plan committee to pay for about $415 million in school district needs.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, the board will decide whether to issue a public notice that they’ll consider a resolution in January to authorize a tax election.

Early in the discussions, board member Kermit Bouillion reiterated his 2010 campaign stance of “no new taxes at this time.” He said voters spoke in 2011 when they defeated the board’s last property tax increase proposal for facilities.

“Until my constituents start calling me up and saying, ‘Mr. Bouillion, we want to pay more taxes.’... I’m sticking to my guns,” Bouillion said.

But Beasley said a vote to put the tax on a ballot is not a vote for the tax.

“All we’re doing is voting to put a measure on the ballot so the public has the opportunity to vote,” Beasley said. “If they want to solidly defeat a tax proposal again … that’s their decision.”

Bouillion said later in the discussions that he would consider supporting a sunset clause on a tax for a five-year period.

Bruce Conque, vice president of community development for the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, told the board that similar taxes have been successful in other cities and used to build public trust by completing projects to find support for future taxes.

Conque served as facilitator at the retreat.

The community education plan committee convened in March and in October presented a combination of sales tax and property tax increase options for the board’s consideration. The taxes could be dedicated to implement the district’s educational turnaround plan, for facilities and for a pay increase for support workers.

Billy Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer, said the board needs to make a decision about whether to proceed with a tax election by its Jan. 20 meeting in order to meet deadlines for a spot on the ballot in May.

Some of the proposed facility projects involve removing portable buildings from select school campuses and replacing them with permanent classrooms. Other projects include possibly building a new high school for the southern part of the parish estimated at $50 million.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux said he opposes the idea of lumping together several issues into one tax referendum, particularly linking facilities needs with the district’s educational turnaround plan.

Board members Rae Trahan and Bouillion suggested the board discuss how to begin addressing some of its facility needs with its existing surplus of $8.8 million in sales tax revenue.

The board has discussed moving about $6 million of the $8.8 million into its reserve fund and using the remainder to fund instructional needs, including technology to prepare schools for state-mandated online tests that begin next school year.

The board makes a decision on how to use the surplus at its meeting on Wednesday.

“We have $8 million of surplus money but we’re sitting here saying let’s go to the voters for more,” Bouillion said. “What kind of message does that send to the community? ... They have $8 million but yet they want $300 million? That’s the part I’m having a hard time understanding.”

Later, committee member Heather Blanchard told the board, “The $8 million is not enough. We need to go beyond that. ... I hear a lot of, ‘It’s good enough.’ As a parent my plea is: It’s never good enough.”

The committee also proposed that the board hire a professional public relations firm to lead marketing and education efforts about a referendum.

The board heard a presentation from Barbara Carey, president of The Communication Institute, a Baton Rouge firm that manages tax referendum campaigns.

Public funds can be used to support education efforts related to the tax as long as the message never tells people whether to vote up or down on the issue, Carey said.

Cooper told the board that he’d prefer that private dollars support any public relations campaign.

Committee member Joyce Linde told the board that she did not support the tax recommendations and would not support a tax proposition on the ballot.

Linde is the coordinator of the TEA Party of Lafayette.

“I think it’s also misleading and not quite right to take the public’s money and sell a tax to me,” Linde said.

Public support of any tax could be thwarted by the discord between the Lafayette Parish School Board and the school system administration, committee member Mandi Mitchell said. She said she knows they share a common goal to provide students the highest quality of education.

“My hope is that you can begin to work past your differences,” Mitchell said.

The district could start its budget planning in the spring with a $14 million deficit, Cooper cautioned the board. The proposals are just a starting point for board discussion about ways to fund needs, he said.

“The main thing is where do we want to go?” Cooper asked the board. “We know we’re going to have a huge deficit from the state — bigger than last year. We cut everything that we know to cut without going into the schools and harming them.

“As a responsibility to the community and board, let us know what the possible plans are. We will work with you to hear what your suggestions are.”