Official: Schools budget shortfall could double

During the next four years, the Lafayette Parish school system’s budget shortfall is expected to more than double from an estimated $10.4 million in the upcoming school year to $21.7 million by 2017-18, based on figures presented Thursday to the School Board.

The board held a special meeting for Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry to outline projected budget shortfalls and the potential impact of new charters that will be opening in August in the district.

In August, three new charter schools will open and two additional charters will open by 2017-18. The schools are eligible for state-per-pupil funding, as well as a share in the district’s tax revenue.

The district stands to lose about $9.6 million in its state-per-pupil funding in the 2014-15 school year, and in 2015-16 that figure could grow by an estimated additional $7.3 million when an additional school opens and the initial schools add more grade levels.

“You can start to understand why we need to look at the next four years, because the impact of what we anticipate going on is pretty significant, and some tough decisions need to be made,” Guidry said.

Guidry said his projections were based on estimates of 350 Lafayette Parish students enrolling in each of the three charter schools and up to 150 students being added to the schools in subsequent years as they expand.

The district may be able to cut its own expenses by $2.7 million in the 2014-15 school year based on reductions in teaching staff, as well as meal and transportation costs, Guidry said.

“Using rough numbers, if you combine the two, it looks like a net (impact) of $7 million?” board member Tommy Angelle asked Guidry.

After Guidry confirmed the estimate, Superintendent Pat Cooper said, “You may also add to that we get three new schools for that $7 million.”

“They’re not our schools,” Angelle said.

“I understand that (but) it keeps the board from having to build three new schools,” Cooper said.

A majority of the board and Cooper stood on separate sides of the charter school issue with the board rejecting the schools’ applications last year.

The charter schools appealed to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and received approval.

On the other side, students moving into the charter school could reduce the district’s expenses by $2.7 million with staff reductions, reduced meal costs and transportation costs related to students leaving the school system, but the estimated financial impact is difficult to calculate with too many unknowns, Guidry said.

At its upcoming regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday, the board is set to take action on two proposals to offset the estimated $10.4 million shortfall.

One suggestion is changing the board’s policy governing its reserve fund by reducing it from banking three months of operating expenses down to two and earmarking $2 million from its 2002 sales tax revenue for teacher salaries.

Adjusting the board’s savings plan isn’t a good idea, given the unknown financial impact the district faces because of the charter schools opening, said board member Rae Trahan.

Historically, Trahan has cautioned the board to budget conservatively or “flat” as she described it.

“We need to tighten our belts and budget tight,” Trahan said.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux opposed adjusting the rainy day fund and proposed not funding the district’s turnaround plan, a six-year plan implemented in 2012. Implementing parts of the plan in the upcoming school year could cost about $4.7 million.

The board will begin reviewing the proposed budget during workshops that begin in April. The board faces tough decisions, said Mark Cockerham, board member.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and things we don’t know,” he said. “This is going to be a difficult budget process because we don’t have hard numbers.”