Acadiana school leaders call for increased school funding

School districts across the state need an increase in per pupil funding to stave off financial crises and meet requirements of state educational reforms, regional school leaders and board members said at a forum Monday organized by the Louisiana School Boards Association.

School districts in the eight-parish area have lost about $165 million in public funding in the past few years, said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

“Many systems are on the verge of financial crisis,” Richard said.

Monday’s forum, held in Breaux Bridge, is one of several planned across the state by the association on issues it will lobby in the upcoming legislative session. The association is pushing for an increase in per pupil funding, a delay of full implementation of performance-based pay schedules for teachers and a third-party evaluation of the state’s new value-added evaluation model for teachers.

Richard said the association also backs a moratorium on school performance scores in 2013-14 as the state transitions to changing accountability and curriculum standards.

Much of the discussion centered on the Minimum Foundation Program — the formula the state uses to allocate per pupil funding.

Richard said school districts have not received adequate compensation from the state Minimum Foundation Program for the past several years because there have been no annual increases to cover the rising cost of goods and services. The failure to adjust the MFP has resulted in a loss of $62 million for school districts in Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes, according to data presented by Richard.

“We’re looking at the fifth year of no growth in the per pupil allocation,” Richard said.

Increases in retirement benefits and employee health insurance and the loss of revenue to districts’ students who transfer out of their local public schools into charters, virtual schools or public and parochial schools as scholarship students whittle away the school district’s public dollars, Richard said.

The cumulative financial impact of the loss of MFP growth, increased retirement costs, student transfers and scholarship program, unfunded mandate expenses and loss of state and federal grant money is $165.2 million for the eight parish area, Richard said.

The data was based on information provided by school districts’ chief financial officers. To date, 60 of 69 parishes have responded to the survey and it appears based on their feedback that public school funding was reduced by more than $1 billion in the past few years, Richard said.

Nearly $1.3 million in MFP dollars were directed out of local public school districts in the eight-parish Acadiana region to the state’s new scholarship program, which allows students at low-performing schools to receive a scholarship or voucher to attend a private or parochial school.

A challenge of the constitutionality of diverting MFP funding to the voucher program heads to the Louisiana Supreme Court next month. The state plans to continue funding the voucher program, which still means less funding for public school districts, said Michael W. Faulk, Central Community School System superintendent. Faulk is also president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

Details of the governor’s proposal to swap the state’s income tax structure with a sizeable sales tax have not been disclosed, but if the plan creates an exemption for taxable inventories, districts across the state could lose $127 million in taxable inventory revenues, Richard said. School boards “won’t have a snowball’s chance in the South” of passing any new taxes or renewing existing ones if income taxes are replaced by higher sales taxes, Richard said.

In Lafayette Parish, the School Board recently appointed a volunteer advisory committee to analyze funding options for the district’s educational turnaround plan and facilities.

Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper has proposed the committee vet a 15-mill property tax increase to fund educational initiatives and a temporary one-cent sales tax with a three-year sunset.

During the meeting, association employees encouraged districts to set up meetings with their regional legislators prior to the start of the session.

A legislative dialogue in Lafayette Parish is planned March 15, Cooper said.

“The big issue is the funding,” Cooper said. “It just appears the state is continuing to take dollars away from us.”

While sales tax revenues and property tax revenues have increased over last year in Lafayette Parish, the impact of cuts and unfunded mandates deflates the district’s reserve fund, Cooper said. The district has a two-month operating cushion in reserves based on general accounting principles, he said.

“We may have an estimated $9 million surplus but we’re facing a cut of $10 million from the state,” Cooper said. “For every cent we’re getting from the state, they’re taking 1.1 cents away.”