BESE approves $3.5 billion public schools funding request

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The state’s top school board approved a $3.5 billion spending request Thursday for public schools over the passionate objections of some lawmakers, superintendents and local school board leaders.

The proposal goes to the Legislature, which can approve or reject the plan but cannot change it.

Critics said they opposed the plan largely because it lacks the traditional 2.75 percent minimum increase ­— in this case about $70 million that they said local school districts need amid skyrocketing retirement costs.

“We need some help, and we need you guys to stand up for us,” West Feliciana Parish Superintendent Hollis Milton told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The 2.75 percent is desperately needed,” Milton said.

Backers of the aid package said that, while the spending plans includes some new money for public schools, it also recognizes that Louisiana’s budget picture makes major funding hikes unlikely.

The motion that won final approval says, if lawmakers find additional money, BESE would back a bigger hike if education standards are maintained.

The vote was 7-2.

The decision was delayed for six days in hopes of working out a compromise between BESE and critics of the proposal, including the Louisiana School Boards Association. No such agreement was reached.

The funding request also mirrors what Gov. Bobby Jindal recommended.

State aid for public schools is parceled out through a system called the Minimum Foundation Program. It provides aid for about 700,000 public school students, in this case, for the 2014-15 school year.

State Superintendent of Education John White, who is Jindal’s chief public school lieutenant, said the spending plan includes $125 million in additional funding, including $69 million that lawmakers approved last year that is now in the MFP, $15 million for career training and aid for students with disabilities and roughly $40 million to reflect increased enrollment.

White added the proposal includes the recommendations of a task force that studied the issue for months.

Critics repeatedly charged that, without a 2.75 percent hike, public schools essentially face a standstill budget amid rising costs for retirement and technology as well as other expenses in preparation for the tougher math, reading and writing standards called Common Core.

State spending per student has been frozen since the 2008-09 school year while retirement costs for school systems have risen by $1.5 billion, said Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system.

“These are very real numbers, so we implore you,” Voitier told the panel.

House Retirement Committee Chairman Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, echoed Voitier’s concerns.

Pearson said that, late in the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers came up with an additional $69 million in recognition of pressing school needs but lawmakers will be disappointed by this year’s request.

“I don’t really feel comfortable what I am seeing coming out of this,” he said.

Without the 2.75 percent increase in state aid, local school systems face major financial challenges, said Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system.

Faulk said that includes up to $105 million in additional retirement costs and expenses for technology, curriculum, textbooks and other supplies that go with more stringent academic standards that take full effect for the 2014-15 school year.

Lottie Beebe, a BESE member who lives in Breaux Bridge, offered a motion to include the 2.75 percent in the request.

“The Legislature is looking to us,” said Beebe, who is superintendent of the St. Martin Parish school system.

Her motion failed 4-5.

On the request that won final approval only Beebe and Carolyn Hill, who lives in Baton Rouge, voted “no.”

Voting “yes” were Holly Boffy, of Youngsville; Connie Bradford, Ruston; Jay Guillot, Ruston; Jim Garvey, Metairie; Walter Lee, Shreveport; Kira Orange Jones, New Orleans; and Chas Roemer, Baton Rouge.

Jane Smith, of Bossier City, and Judy Miranti, of New Orleans, were absent.