Board considering another run at tax for Hammond-area magnet programs

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board is considering another push for a property tax to fund Hammond-area magnet programs, but the board’s decades-old desegregation lawsuit appears to be delaying any official decisions on the measure.

The board announced Wednesday it will consider levying a property tax in the parish’s Consolidated School District No. 1, which covers Hammond and a portion of Ponchatoula.

The board asked voters in that district in May to consider a 5-year, 15-mill property tax that was projected to generate about $3.42 million per year for the magnet programs. Voters narrowly rejected the proposal.

The board used to have a 9-mill property tax that funded Hammond magnet programs, but it expired after 2012.

Board members say it’s likely the tax would be used to fund magnet programs, though they are waiting on developments in the board’s decades-old desegregation lawsuit before determining the tax’s exact purpose.

State law requires school boards to announce intentions to levy a new tax at least 30 days before voting on the tax.

The board is scheduled to discuss the tax at its Feb. 4 meeting.

The parish entered a federal desegregation order in 2010 that requires three new schools be built at an estimated cost of $54 million. The order also requires the school board to maintain several magnet programs throughout the parish, including in Hammond.

The board in September voted to submit a new plan that would redraw the parish’s attendance zones to achieve greater racial balance. U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle told the board in November it needed to discuss the plan further with the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case before he would consider approving it.

Board member Brett Duncan said the board has been trying to schedule meetings with the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“Depending on exactly what happens over the next few weeks, we’ll try to make some final decisions on what we might propose,” Duncan said.

If approved by the board, the tax proposal could appear on the May 3 ballot, Duncan said.

Ever since the May defeat of the magnet tax, the magnet programs have been skating by on taxes that voters agreed to rededicate in that same election, Superintendent Mark Kolwe said.

Voters agreed to shift a 1-cent sales tax from construction and maintenance to operational costs. The tax generates about $17 million per year.

Board President Chris Cohea said the money from that tax cannot sustain the magnet programs because it is used for a variety of costs. She said magnet finances also are tight after a federal grant for the programs was not renewed.

“Those extra positions or extra things for magnet (programs), we’re not going to have the money to fulfill (them),” Cohea said.

Duncan, who represents part of Hammond, said the magnet programs are important because they spur voluntary desegregation by encouraging parents to move their children to magnet schools.

“We know that we need to protect some form of funding for those (magnet) programs because going forward, they’re always going to be in competition with other budgetary needs like they were this past year,” Duncan said.

Also at issue for the board, if it follows through with the new magnet tax, is whether it will allow some Ponchatoula residents to vote on the Hammond-focused issue, which happened in the last election.

A small group residents who live in the Ponchatoula attendance zone voted in the Hammond magnet tax election because the Consolidated School District No. 1’s boundaries extend into part of Ponchatoula.

Duncan said he’d like to redraw the district’s boundaries so that doesn’t happen again.

“We had an old taxing district that did not mirror the attendance zone for those Hammond schools,” he said.

Board Vice President Rose Dominguez, who represents Ponchatoula, agreed with Duncan about changing the boundaries, but she said it’s unlikely that change could be made in time for a May election.

“We can’t even do anything until we have the judge’s approval to change the boundaries anyway,” Dominguez said.