Leaders gird for freezes on public school aid

School superintendents said Friday they are bracing for the fifth year in a row of freezes in state aid for public schools.

Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters Thursday that aid for schools — it is called the Minimum Foundation Program — will be frozen for the 2013-14 school except to cover costs for additional students. That means spending per student would remain unchanged.

State services face a $1.3 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins July 1.

Livingston Parish Superintendent John Watson said his district will have lost out on collecting about $30 million in state assistance over the five-year period, including $3 million or $4 million this year.

The district has an annual operating budget of $226 million and 25,400 students. State aid accounts for about 65 percent of school dollars.

“This will be a significant problem for us, especially when the increased retirement that we must take care of is about $2.5 million for us,” Watson said.

Rising retirement and health care costs are two of the biggest items that school leaders cite in coping with state freezes.

In the past, funding for public schools usually rose by 2.75 percent per year.

Watson said the lack of yearly increases has sparked slightly more crowded classrooms.

Bernard Taylor, superintendent for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said the freeze adds more uncertainty to budget planning along with questions about federal dollars, how many students will leave the school system and other questions.

“It is that age-old dilemma when your expenses continue to rise but your revenue is flat or declining,” said Taylor.

The district has an operating budget of about $405 million and serves about 42,500 students.

West Feliciana Parish Superintendent Hollis Milton said the fifth year of freezes will have a negative impact on his schools. “The MFP freeze and the unfunded mandates have put all districts in an ominous situation,” Milton said.

“We have a really good school system,” he said.

“But there are only so many hits you can take,” Milton said. “We have some extremely challenging decisions to make.”

The district has about 2,200 students and an annual operating budget of about $25 million.

Milton said the lack of any hikes in state aid will have cost the district about $2.5 million, or about 10 percent of one of its budgets.

He said the school system has been aided by voter approval last year of a half-cent sales tax increase, which provides schools about $750,000 per year.

But higher teacher retirement costs swallow up about $400,000, Milton said.

Asked about the impact of a fifth freeze, Terrebonne Parish Superintendent Phillip Martin said, “Well, it doesn’t result in good things.”

The district has an annual operating budget of about $190 million and roughly 19,000 students.

“We are faced with escalating costs of educating children, not something we can control,” he said.

Under Jindal’s plan, MFP funding would total $3.5 billion for about 712,000 public school students.

The proposed operating budget is $24.7 billion for the financial year that begins July 1.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, will make its formal request for school aid when it meets on March 7 and March 8.

However, the 11-member panel, which is dominated by Jindal allies, is expected to follow the governor’s lead and ask the Legislature for a standstill budget.

Lawmakers can only accept or reject BESE’s request but cannot change it.