$219 million plan includes pay raises
GONZALES — Ascension Parish’s 2,800 full-time public school employees would receive their first permanent pay raise since 2008 and 5,200 more students would get laptops or tablets if the School Board approves a nearly $219 million budget proposed for fiscal year 2014-15.
The board, which plans to discuss and vote on the budget in meetings starting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Gonzales, also will discuss a proposed $25.5 million in improvement projects to 17 buildings on 16 school campuses.
The board estimates the cost of a 3 percent employee salary increase and corresponding benefit increases would be $5.6 million and would be paid for with property tax revenue increases in the 2013-14 fiscal year ending June 30. The Ascension Parish Assessor’s Office found and added new properties to the tax rolls, which contributed to an 8 percent increase in revenue.
“First and foremost, our employees are the most important element in the success of our school system,” Superintendent Patrice Pujol said Wednesday.
The budget is considered a break-even proposal, said Diane Allison, director of business services. Proposed expenses of approximately $218 million would represent a 6 percent increase over this year, a rise largely due to employee raises.
The general fund budget would still have a healthy fund balance of approximately $53.7 million in a school district supported by strong sales tax and property tax revenues, Allison said.
“Ascension is a wealthy and young parish,” Allison said.
She pointed to demographic figures that show the parish’s average per capita income of close to $44,000 is greater than the national average, and that 65 percent of the population in the parish is under the age of 45.
That, she said, means more families with young children and the need for more schools.
The district, which serves more than 21,000 students, expects between 350 and 600 new students when school starts in the fall.
“The constant growth in our district does present a challenge for us. We are continually in the process of facility planning so that we can accommodate our students well,” Pujol said.
The good news, she said, is the district has strong community support.
The majority of the funding for proposed building projects, approximately $21.7 million, would come from a bond issue that voters passed in 2009. The remainder would come from general fund surplus.
Three of the projects will be the first phase of construction of new buildings for the Freshman Academy programs for ninth-graders at Dutchtown High, East Ascension High and St. Amant High schools.
Also in 2014-15, $2.8 million is proposed for major maintenance projects, including new bleachers at the East Ascension High stadium along with re-roofing projects at Donaldsonville High, Gonzales Middle and Galvez Middle schools.
The school district is considering going to voters in 2015 with a $111 million bond issue to build three primary schools, one new middle school, a large classroom addition at Dutchtown Primary School and purchase some property for future schools.
A bond issue for a new high school and more property purchases is being considered for 2019, according to the School Board.
The expansion of the One to One technology program would put laptops or tablets into the hands of all fifth-graders, ensure a few remaining middle school students have them and add to the numbers of high school students with them, school officials said. The $1.8 million outlay in computers — the seventh expansion under a program started in 2008 — would bring the total number of students with a laptop or tablet to 13,000.
Fueled largely by expansions at area chemical plants, sales taxes have had an average annual increase of about 6 percent since 2003, jumped to a 13 percent increase in 2012, followed by a 16 percent increase in 2013, then an 8 percent increase in 2014, Allison said.
The School Board said it is taking a conservative approach by projecting no growth in sales tax revenues this year with some plant expansions complete, Allison said.
Sales tax revenues are figured in the proposed 2014-15 budget at approximately $61.9 million.
“The short-term financial outlook does indicate continued strength in our financial resources,” Pujol said. “We do know, however, that the economy is always cyclical. We must be strong fiscal stewards.”
Property tax, or ad valorem, revenues for the school district are budgeted at approximately $49.7 million.
“Over the past 10 years, ad valorem revenues have increased an average of 10 percent per year, as the taxable value of property in Ascension Parish has increased from $478 million to $1 billion,” Allison said.
Other top budget items proposed for the coming fiscal year are:
- $600,000 for expanding a professional development program for staff and faculty to additional schools.
- $300,000 to supplement early childhood teacher salaries funded by the federal Head Start program to reach the statewide goal of providing certified teachers for children ages 3 and 4.
- $250,000 for a new assessment software system required to implement Common Core state standards.
“All these components are critical to our students’ success,” Pujol said.