Lafayette School Board slowly making its way on budget cuts

Members take no action on proposals

Lafayette Parish School Board member Rae Trahan had plenty of ideas to cut the board’s $23.5 million shortfall to less than $7 million, but more than three hours after she made her pitch Monday, the full board had yet to take action on her suggestions.

Last week, the board cut less than $700,000 in a six-hour meeting as it reviewed accounts related to the Superintendent’s Office, maintenance and legal services and the board’s own expenses. On Monday, the board planned to move through the remaining accounts, which include the bulk of instructional costs and salaries for the district.

But by 9 p.m., the board had not yet reached the instructional accounts.

Job cuts may be inevitable, given the budget situation and another projected shortfall next year as charter schools in the district will likely grow and at least two more charter schools will be built, board member Tehmi Chassion said.

“We’re basically operating outside our means right now, and we can’t hope that a tax passes,” Chassion said. “We can’t operate that way. Either we make cuts now or we make cuts next year.

“The last thing we want to do is to cut any jobs,” Chassion continued, “but it’s a reality that we might honestly be facing at this point.”

The meeting began with Trahan questioning Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry about expenses ranging from small capital improvement projects paid through the general fund to dean of students positions and appeals for teachers and special education teachers over the staffing formula. After each expense, Trahan asked Guidry how much the shortfall would be reduced if the item were cut. In an hour, the proposed reductions came to about $6.8 million — though no action was taken by the board during Trahan’s review, which she described as a budget exercise.

Trahan said her goal is to protect classrooms from the budget cuts. She said she has no plan to support cuts to jobs such as social workers, school resource officers and instructional strategists. She said she also does not support increasing the student-teacher ratios by two students — ­­another suggestion made by staff to produce a savings of more than $2 million.

The board was asked by staff to reconsider some cuts it had made at last week’s meeting, such as $1,800 in mileage for the personnel department. That request failed in a 4-3 vote with board members Trahan, Hunter Beasley, Mark Babineaux and Tommy Angelle voting against the funding. Board members Shelton Cobb, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham voted in support of the expense. Chassion was not in the meeting room during the vote. Greg Awbrey was absent from the meeting.

Prior to the board’s vote on the mileage issue, Alice Boucher Elementary teacher Toni Ventroy asked the board to consider teachers’ out-of-pocket expenses as they make their budget decisions.

“I work at a high-poverty school where parents cannot afford their students’ instructional fees nor can they afford their school supplies. Who funds it? I do,” Ventroy said. “I think most of the teachers here do that for their students. We haven’t had a pay increase. It’s taken from our income as well. When we talk about what’s fair and not fair to those who are traveling, please keep in mind the teachers who are in trenches every day.”

The vote fell the same way on another staff request to reinstate about $17,000 for conference expenses in the personnel budget. Prior to the vote, retired teacher Pat Sonnier urged the board not to backtrack on cuts it made last week because it doesn’t have time to prolong its budget process. School starts on Aug. 12, and the board’s budget decisions will determine staffing numbers.

About 3½ hours into Monday’s meeting, the board resumed its line-by-line review of accounts it had not considered at its meeting last week. By 9 p.m., the largest approved cut was $105,000 from the vehicle maintenance account, which reduced expenses for fuel by $30,000 and vehicle maintenance by $75,000.

In a 5-3 vote, the board approved its health and wellness budget without any cuts. Board members Babineaux, Trahan and Chassion voted against the budget without cuts

The district’s former school nurse supervisor Betty Alford asked the board to consider the financial strain it’s under and to look closely at cutting its health and wellness programs. The department oversees the district’s health services, as well as discipline programs. It also operates at least one school-based health center at Carencro Middle with plans to start a telehealth medicine clinic at Ossun Elementary in partnership with Lafayette General Medical Center. The district also has a school-based health center at Northside High operated by Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center.

Alford said that while she supports health services for students, she doesn’t think the district should spend money it doesn’t have on primary health care for students, especially as the district faces a $23.5 million deficit.

“I think a lot of you already know that I believe in health services for students,” Alford said. “If we had a lot of extra money, then maybe we could do these things.”

By 9 p.m., the board had not voted on a suggested cut of $343,000 for the department, which includes the salary for the director’s position. Health and wellness director Bradley Cruice defended the work of the department’s program in reducing discipline issues and helping students address health and behavioral issues through a team management concept.

Discipline issues are at a five-year low, Cruice said.

Superintendent Pat Cooper asked the board to consider solutions beyond this year. The board has rejected prior attempts to balance the budget using a portion of available funds from its $66 million rainy day account and up to $10 million in sales tax revenue that Cooper has said can be used for salaries related to lowering class size.

“We’ve got to fix the deficit problem rather than kick the can down the road,” Cooper said.