New EBR school budget process has same old problem: Lack of funds

Unlike in years past, about a third of the spending proposed in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system’s $441.1 million general operating budget reflects the judgments of school principals, not the Central Office.

However, the recently released budget proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1 is still out of balance, not a new phenomenon.

Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor is projecting the school system will dip into its reserves once again to stay in the black, to the tune of almost $20 million. That’s less than earlier projections of as much as $33 million in overspending, but it still represents an almost 5 percent increase in spending overall.

The School Board will take up the 2014-15 general fund budget on Thursday and is expected to approve a budget when it meets June 19.

This spring, Taylor directed principals to cut their own budgets by 4 to 8 percent but to spare classroom teachers. Schools where 90 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would have to cut just 4 percent.

The shift to school-based budgeting is part of a larger effort by Taylor to give principals more power but stops short of the more radical power shift the Baton Rouge Area Chamber has been pushing and the Legislature has thus far rejected.

The proposed 2014-15 budget includes 80 school-level budgets complete with breakdowns of what positions principals have elected to keep. The budgets don’t, however, make clear the savings each school proposes to achieve and what positions principals have opted to cut.

School Board member Jill Dyason has been the most vocal in saying she thinks the proposed school-level cuts go too far. Taylor, however, said he’s been working with principals to blunt the impact of the cuts and meet areas of greatest need.

The budget Taylor is presenting the School Board will leave the school system with a reserve of about $16 million at the end of 2014-15 fiscal year.

That’s slightly better than the $12.5 million in reserves the school system projected in August when it belatedly approved its 2013-14 general operating budget. That projection turned out to be conservative, as the school system now projects it will end the year on June 30 with $33.1 million in the bank.

The biggest category of new spending proposed for 2014-15 is $20 million more 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.

Charter school enrollment is expected to be less than the worst-case scenario presented a month ago. For instance, proposed payouts to Mentorship Academy — the academy is actually two related high schools located in one building — is to decrease by $4.5 million because the two schools expect to enroll at most 600 students, not the 1,000 students they could enroll as part of their contract.

Despite school-level cuts, the school system still may expand its payroll. The proposed general operating budget calls for a net increase of 126 positions. Those jobs are being added even as the system is projecting enrolling about 800 fewer students, reducing anticipated overall enrollment to about 41,000 students.

Those 126 new positions are concentrated in a few areas: kindergarten and middle school teachers, gifted and talented teachers, teachers and aides in alternative schools, teacher aides and parent liaisons and school bus drivers. Other job categories are shrinking, including guidance counselors, school librarians and elementary and high school teachers.