BESE expects request to revamp spending proposal

Louisiana’s top school board plans to hold a special — and possibly fiery — meeting Monday to amend its $3.6 billion spending request and resurrect the proposal in the Legislature.

The key change would prevent automatic education increases in the future, which Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, cited when his committee killed the initial plan on May 2.

“The concerns that were expressed by the committee, this will address them,” state Superintendent of Education John White said Sunday.

However, superintendents, school board leaders and teacher union representatives may argue that funding increases of at least 2.75 percent are needed annually, even if the Legislature fails to agree on a plan, because of rising retirement, health insurance and other costs.

The issue at dispute is called the Minimum Foundation Program, which is the key funding source for nearly 700,000 public school students statewide for the 2014-15 school year.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education submits its request to the Legislature, which can accept or reject the proposal, but cannot change it.

The committee’s rejection of the first plan sparked a series of meetings with state education leaders and lawmakers, and has prompted a 1 p.m. meeting of BESE to consider revisions that backers hope will allow the plan to win legislative approval.

The department’s recommendations were spelled out in a two-page memo sent Saturday to BESE President Chas Roemer.

One of the proposed amendments would retain plans to boost per student spending by about $70 million, which is the same hike the Legislature approved last year in a complicated, back-door process.

But the revision would “remove language that may allow for an increase in such a rate in future years without a new formula,” according to the memo.

Appel complained earlier this month that, under the version debated then, state spending could rise by 2.75 percent annually in the future even if the Legislature failed to agree on a new spending plan, which is what happened in 2013.

That would unfairly tie the hands of legislators, he said.

The proposed change is likely to spark controversy, in part because some BESE members believe an “inflationary” spending boost is needed annually to aid embattled school districts.

Until last year, state aid for public schools was essentially frozen for years, which superintendents and others said compounded budget problems for local school leaders long accustomed to increases of 2.75 percent and more.

Even the $70 million this time is inadequate, critics say, because it would simply put in the formula the same amount provided to schools last year in a separate appropriation outside the formula.

A variety of school leaders were unavailable for comment Sunday, which was Mother’s Day.

White said other amendments that BESE will review are aimed at ensuring funding recommended by a task force that met for months last year, especially after House education changes on Thursday to the state’s proposed $25 billion spending plan.

That includes about $15 million in new aid for special education, career education and dual enrollment.

Other proposed changes are designed to answer complaints about details of the spending plan.

One would save local school districts $3.4 million that would otherwise be used for students who attend special state schools.

Another would be designed to answer criticism that charter schools stand to land a disproportionate amount of state aid for students with significant disabilities.

The session ends on June 2. Action on the MFP is supposed to be finished three days before adjournment.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.