EBR's Taylor: Charter school costs 'eating us alive'

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board debated until late Thursday its $441.1 million general operating budget, its first such debate, but will not vote on the spending plan until June 19.

The debate didn’t begin until 10 p.m., five hours after the board meeting began.

Unlike in years past, about a third of the spending proposed in the budget reflects the judgments of school principals, not the Central Office.

Even so, the draft budget proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1 is still out of balance.

School 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 $21 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 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.

Taylor noted that absent payouts to charter schools, spending would increase by only $1.5 million.

“What’s driving our deficit is not anything we’re doing,” Taylor said. “We’re containing our costs, but we’re being eaten alive by this.”

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.

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 four 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 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.

Overall, the school-level and department-level cuts add up to $15.1 million.

A couple of board members have argued the proposed school-level cuts go too far. Taylor, however, has said he’s been working with principals to blunt the impact of the cuts and meet areas of greatest need.

The proposed budget would leave the school system with an estimated reserve of about $16 million at the end of 2014-15 fiscal year.

That’s slightly better than the $8.6 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.

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.

James Crochet, chief financial officer, said 53 new positions are being added for the new Brookstown Middle School, opening in August. Also, some principals have chosen to hire more lower-paid aide positions rather than higher-paid instructional staff.