by Charles Lussier
Advocate staff writer
August 13, 2012
The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board may have to hunt for another $3.7 million in cuts if it can’t muster seven votes to roll forward its millages on Thursday night.
The School Board also is looking Thursday at other potential budget busters, including figuring out how to plug a multi-million dollar hole in employee medical coverage, and assessing the impact of new school choices on the school’s financial position.
In June, the School Board approved a $410 million general operating budget that included $28 million in cuts. The cuts included eliminating 221 job positions, closing EBR Lab School, merging Northdale Academy and EBR Acceleration Academy, forgoing bus purchases, changing start times for parochial schools and freezing employee salaries at current levels.
This is the fourth consecutive year of budget cuts for the school system, the second-largest school district in Louisiana. The cuts have been sparked by flat state funding for education, cost-shifting to local districts of items such as pensions and private school transportation, and slow growth in local tax revenue.
The district also is funding new charter schools.
Property tax growth this year, sparked by the reassessment of residential property, which occurs every four years, helped keep things from getting worse. These revenues increased by $3.7 million, for a growth rate of 2.7 percent.
Before, the school system can reap increased money from the reassessment, the School Board will need to vote to keep millages at their current rate. The total rate is 43.55 mills, which includes 10 different property taxes.
The School Board, however, needs a two-thirds vote — seven of 11 members — to maintain current rates. If the board can’t get seven yes votes, then the millage rates will “roll back.” That means that rates will decrease by a small amount so that the school system raises $3.7 million less in property taxes.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party has lobbied public agencies to vote against rolling forward their millages in a campaign it’s calling “Operation Stop the Roll Forward.” Former state legislator Woody Jenkins, chairman of the local party, is heading up the campaign.
The School Board has six Republicans and five Democrats.
Most of the school districts in the area that already have considered the matter have voted to roll forward their millages.
Central, which has enjoyed fast enrollment growth, is a rare exception.
Freiberg said she and Superintendent Bernard Taylor met with Jenkins several days ago to explain why they think the roll forward is necessary.
She said Jenkins asked Taylor for more information and promised to go back to his party committee, but she said she hasn’t heard any more since.
Freiberg, who is Republican, said she hopes, but is not certain, that the board has the votes to roll forward the millages and that the issue does not devolve into a partisan fight.
“I feel like we have been good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Freiberg said.
The School Board on Thursday is also planning to debate four new proposals to plug a hole in its employee medical insurance program.
Since June, the School Board has been unable to settle on ways to fill that hole. On July 19, the board voted down a proposal to push 2,700 Medicare-eligible retirees into a Medicare supplemental insurance exchange, a move that would have saved an estimated $8.7 million a year.
On Thursday, Superintendent Taylor released information on four new options. They range from raising insurance premiums by 25 percent across the board, a move that would affect about 10,000 people, to raising premiums only for the school district’s almost 5,000 retirees and sparing active employees.
Five employee workshops have been scheduled on Monday to explain the proposals.
Any changes wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2013.
Freiberg said she’s not sure if the board will settle on an approach by Thursday, but she said board members will have to figure it out soon.
The School Board will also look at enrollment and whether students are transferring into charter schools or enrolling in private schools through Louisiana’s new voucher program.
So far, the school system looks like it’s in a good position. On Friday, 43,622 students were enrolled. That’s 537 more than were enrolled on Wednesday, and more than the school system’s official Oct. 1 enrollment count last year.