School system eyes ways to plug $18 million deficit
LAFAYETTE — Into the second hour of a Lafayette Parish School Board budget workshop Tuesday, Superintendent Pat Cooper asked the board to stop “nit-picking” proposed budget cuts and leave decisions on how to run the school system to professionals.
“What we would like is: tell us how much money you want to give us; then us, as the experts, figure out what we want to spend it on in order to get this district where we need to go,” Cooper said. “From what I’m seeing, you’re nit-picking us to death.”
The board on Tuesday continued a discussion that began earlier this month of two budget proposals to balance an $18 million shortfall in its general fund. In lieu of budget cuts, one version would use nearly $11 million from the board’s general fund reserve account and would fund some positions from a 2002 sales tax fund. A second version would bridge the shortfall with a list of proposed cuts, including increasing classroom sizes, eliminating the district’s school resource officer program and reducing staff positions.
During the budget workshop, Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry asked board members for their feedback on proposed cuts and said the board will vote on the proposals during a special meeting to be scheduled next week.
Some board members identified other areas that could be cut and requested some proposed cuts be restored, such as $2 million in step increases for teachers and support personnel and about $1 million for a school resource officer program. Board members questioned the need for other cuts, prompting Cooper’s interjection about two hours into the workshop.
Board member Rae Trahan defended the board’s authority over budget decisions and said the board has worked to build up its reserve fund and remove positions out of the tax fund. One proposed budget version would undo all of the board’s prior fiscal decisions, she said.
Board member Greg Awbrey said he felt the board was given an ultimatum: make cuts or use the reserves and sales tax revenues.
Awbrey said the board needs to make tough decisions now because the deficit will only grow larger next year if the board uses one-time money from the sales tax and the reserve fund. The district will also continue to lose a portion of its sales tax revenues and some of its state per student funding to new charter schools that open in August in the parish.
“We have to intelligently plan and escape from this deficit next time by having cuts in place,” Awbrey said. “I don’t want to see the next board that sits down looking at a $20 (to) $25 million deficit. … That’s the wrong thing to do right now.”
The reality is that future budget decisions will get tougher without any new tax revenue, Guidry said.
“We’re still going to have to deal with some of these same line items next year, if there’s not a tax initiative,” Guidry said.
Board member Tehmi Chassion suggested the board meet and decide on key decisions, such as whether to use the sales tax fund revenues and how much of the reserves to use to balance the shortfall.
The board will meet 6:30 p.m. June 5 to decide on the sales tax and reserve account funding and on proposed cuts of big ticket items, such as the school resource officer program, team teaching and instructional strategist.
The board considered meeting in a workshop on Saturday to continue the budget discussion; however, Trahan proposed the board defer the workshop until the board takes a vote on the funding sources.
Earlier in the Tuesday meeting, board president Hunter Beasley identified $2 million in new cuts, although he did not have the list with him to share. Beasley said further review is needed given the district’s dire budget situation. His proposed cuts would likely balance out his other budget suggestion made Tuesday — to restore $2 million in proposed cuts to annual salary increases for certified teachers and non-certified school personnel.
Board member Mark Allen Babineaux said he identified $4 million in potential cuts, but he also did not have that information available to share with board members.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.