More budget cuts looming for EBR school system

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is in the middle of yet another round of budget-cutting, and this time the principals are making many of the calls on what to cut.

The school system’s latest projection, released earlier this month, is that it will spend nearly $29 million more than it takes in during the 2014-15 fiscal year unless it makes cuts.

The revenue shortfall of nearly $29 million includes $6.4 million carried over from the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The net amount expenses are expected to exceed revenues for the 2014-15 school year is $22.4 million, much of that attributable to added costs from new and expanding charter schools.

To make up the difference, Superintendent Bernard Taylor is having principals cut their own budgets by 4 to 8 percent but sparing classroom teachers. Schools where 90 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would have to cut 4 percent.

Taylor also has called for across-the-board cuts for Central Office departments, a move that has prompted the letting go and early retirement of some veteran school administrators.

The school system sent letters April 18 notifying some school employees of the possibility they could be laid off as a result of a reduction in force, or RIF.

The potential categories targeted for RIFs include Central Office administrators and clerical staff, principals, assistant principals, school secretaries and clerks, food service workers, bus drivers and time-out room moderators.

Cuts, however, won’t become official until the School Board approves its general fund budget, which it usually does by July 1, the start of the fiscal year. However, the board last year couldn’t agree on a budget until early August.

The school system’s general operating budget is the largest of dozens of budgets, representing roughly two-thirds of school system spending. It funds most day-to-day operations.

School Board member Jill Dyason said this month that she thinks the proposed school-level cuts that principals are having to make may go too far. She said some schools in her district could end up with not enough staff to even answer the phones.

“There are cases where you can have a secretary and you can have a guidance counselor, but you can’t have both,” Dyason said.

Taylor responded, “You can have both, but you may not be able to have it the way you have it now. That is the reality when your resources are declining.”

Taylor said he’s running out of options. If the board doesn’t want to go the route he’s suggesting, it could mean looking at other unpopular changes, including pay freezes, reducing benefits or changing transportation.

Taylor also noted that the school system is projecting having to make annual budget cuts not just for next year but for three years after that.

“This is not going to get better,” he said. “It’s going to get worse.”

The School Board plans to hold, but has yet to schedule, a workshop to discuss the budget cuts.

Board President David Tatman said he shares some of Dyason’s concerns and said some schools may need some relief from the deepest cuts.

“At some point you cut, you cut, you cut, and at some point, you hit bone, and that what’s we’re looking at,” Tatman said.

About $5.4 million of the anticipated overspending in 2014-15 is paying for expansion of the magnet program, particularly a new middle school on the former Brookstown Elementary campus. That expansion was approved in January.

The School Board also increased employee pay on May 1. That will draw another estimated $1.8 million from the school’s general fund in 2014-15, plus more from other funds, including employee salary money raised via a 1-cent sales tax first approved in 1998.

Part of what the board approved May 1 covers the cost of “demand stipends” for teachers who move from their current schools to a dozen low-performing schools. Teachers get an extra $500 if they make the switch. If schools meet performance goals, employees could get between $200 to $5,000 more a year.

Another part increases annual pay for bus drivers and cafeteria workers, as well as school administrators, administrative support, clerical staff and paraprofessionals, ROTC coordinators and technology workers.

Raises range from $113 to $269 in 2014-15, then $300 annual step increases after that. Bus drivers showed up in force at recent board meetings to press for higher pay.

The biggest category of new spending, though, is $26 million for new and expanding charter schools. Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via contracts, or charters.

School officials and auditors have long reported that traditional public schools reap little to no savings when charter schools open and take students with them. The students tend to leave in small clumps, not enough for traditional schools to cut teachers and staff or eliminate bus routes. That makes it difficult to offset the outflow of money via budget cuts.

Taylor has signaled that the financial drain of charter schools means that he will he be extremely cautious about approving any more charter schools.

He has proposed an alternative idea, which he’s calling “Innovation Schools,” as a way of allowing some schools independence but at less of a financial cost to the system.

Of that $26 million, $22.3 million is for Type 1 charters, schools approved by the School Board itself, not the state. Charter applicants can appeal to the state if local school boards deny their applications.

Two new charters, South Baton Rouge Charter Academy and Haynes Middle School, could enroll as many as 1,000 students when they open their doors in August.

Seven other Type 1 charter schools already operating could add another 883 students if they expand to the full extent allowed by their charters.

The charters that could add the most students — Career Academy and the twin Mentorship Academies in downtown Baton Rouge — are unlikely to do so, though. They have struggled academically and have fallen short of previous enrollment targets. The Mentorship Academies, for instance, currently has barely 500 students but its contract allows it to have 1,000 students.