Superintendents say they are scrambling to protect classroom operations amid the fourth consecutive year of a general freeze in state aid to public schools.
“We live in difficult times today,” said David Corona, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Public schools open next month, with some starting as early as Aug. 6.
However, the bells will go off amid a freeze in state aid that supplements teacher salaries, finances textbooks and other costs.
Earlier this year the Legislature, at the request of Gov. Bobby Jindal, approved a $3.4 billion spending plan for Louisiana’s 700,000 or so public school students for the 2012-13 school year.
The only increase is for higher enrollment, which means that what the state spends per student will remain unchanged for the fourth year in a row because of state budget problems.
In the past, school assistance rose by at least 2.75 percent per year, which officials said helped offset rising retirement and health care costs.
In 2007 and 2008 — when the state was flush with hurricane recovery money — state school aid increased by 3 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
But the lack of any such hikes since 2009 has helped spark layoffs, frozen salaries, consolidated bus routes and raids on district rainy day funds.
Hollis Milton, superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school system, noted that his school district closed Tunica Elementary School two years ago.
Other operations were consolidated.
“We have made some cuts,” he said. “But at the end of the day we have been able to keep the quality of the instruction at the same level.”
Milton said voter approval earlier this year of a half-cent sales tax — it will raise about $700,000 per year — will ease some of the pressure caused by the freeze in state aid.
State aid for public schools goes through a formula called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP.
State school aid accounts for roughly half of education funding and half comes from local sources.
Officials say personnel costs, including salaries, retirements and health care, account for 90 percent or so of district budgets.
Corona said the freeze in state aid has sparked a belt-tightening mindset.
“Let’s put it this way.” Corona said. “If the MFP was not frozen, we obviously would have more money and we would be able to do some additional things in the classroom that we are not doing.”
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is making budget cuts for the fourth consecutive year, in part, because of the MFP freeze, said Chris Trahan, spokesman for the district.
Trahan said personnel reductions have been implemented for the past two years.
Classes start Aug. 8.
Mark Kolwe, superintendent of the Tangipahoa Parish school system, said salaries in his district have been frozen for the past two years.
Kolwe said some benefits have been eliminated, including sabbaticals and extended sick leave.
The district’s rainy day fund has also been tapped.
“We are fortunate to have funds to fall back on,” he said. “Our focus during the whole budget process is to protect the classroom and expenditures tied to the classroom.”
Ascension Parish School District Superintendent Patrice Pujol said students and parents will see no impact in the classroom, because of years of state aid freezes.
“We have been able to balance that off with fund reserves that a lot of districts don’t have,” said Pujol.
Classes start Aug. 8.
Livingston Parish School District Superintendent Bill Spear said a wide range of cuts and savings initiatives in the past four years stems from the MFP freeze, including changes in the teacher-student ratio formula used by the district.
Classes start Aug. 9.
Nearly half of the Lafayette Parish school system’s $4.9 million deficit stems from just one year of going without a traditional hike in state aid, said Billy Guidry, chief financial officer for the district.
Guidry said student-teacher ratios have risen by two students per classroom in both regular and special education classes; the alternative education program was overhauled and reductions were made in a program for teenage mothers.
The Terrebonne Parish school system has trimmed its workforce by about 400 employees in the past four years — 16 percent — in part because of the freeze in state aid, said Phillip Martin, who is superintendent.
In DeSoto Parish, which is in northwest Louisiana, Haynesville shale-generated education revenue has slowed and sparked a property tax hike, said Superintendent Walter Lee.
“We are economizing, but we are doing it in a way that does not affect the classroom,” said Lee, who is also a veteran member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Claiborne Parish school system in north Louisiana has had layoffs of roughly 15 percent and six percent in the past two years; one school was closed last year and classrooms are more crowded, Superintendent Janice Williams said.