Lafayette school system educators, support staff leaving as board grapples with deficit

Rather than wait to find out if her job will be cut while the Lafayette Parish School Board grapples with a $23.5 million shortfall, Danielle Babineaux decided to resign as an instructional strategist earlier this month and take a job at a non-public school in the parish, where she’ll continue to do what she loves — helping teachers help students.

Babineaux is one of 158 certified teachers who resigned from the district in the 2013-14 school year — a slight drop from the 2012-13 school year’s 179 resignations. The number of retirements, meanwhile, increased slightly: 178 retirees in the 2013-14 school year compared with 170 in 2012-13.

What remains unclear is just what impact the Lafayette Parish School System’s ongoing budget uncertainties will have on the district’s personnel numbers.

As one of the district’s 37 instructional strategists, Babineaux, a certified teacher, worked with classroom teachers implementing new learning standards and innovative teaching techniques. The instructional strategists’ role in the district could face elimination — at a potential annual savings of about $2.7 million — a small rock to fill a $23.5 million hole.

If eliminated, the strategists would have the chance to return to classroom teaching jobs. But that option didn’t appeal to Babineaux, who’s found her niche as an instructional coach. She said her growing frustration over what she describes as dysfunction and mistrust between the School Board and school system staff also made her decision to resign easier. She pointed to board members’ attempts to red pen the budget as an example.

“I would never be on a hospital board and tell them what to cut because I don’t have the expertise,” she said. “They want to be a part of every single decision and that’s not part of their responsibility.”

The board faces difficult decisions on how to bridge the shortfall, with options such as increasing class sizes and eliminating educator and support positions such as social workers, counselors and nurses.

Despite the dismal budget outlook, there hasn’t been a dramatic uptick in teacher resignations compared to the 2012-13 school year — at least not yet. It’s also unclear how competition from three charter schools set to open in Lafayette Parish in August could affect the school district.

Early estimates show more than 1,000 of the district school system’s students plan to enroll in the charter schools. Initially, district school officials said the enrollment shift wasn’t expected to affect classroom teacher counts because of the number of teachers leaving through retirement or resignations. However, new jobs available at the charter schools coupled with the parish school district’s $23.5 million budget shortfall creates an unprecedented situation for Lafayette Parish Schools.

“Last week alone we had four teachers that resigned to go to charters. I think the longer all this goes unresolved, the more teachers are going to leave,” Superintendent Pat Cooper said Tuesday. “I don’t think we’re in a panic point at this point, because if the board can get the budget done by the first of July, that will help. … There are some good people out there waiting, but they’re not going to wait forever.”

The Lafayette Parish Association of Educators has been tracking resignation and retiree data, concerned that teachers are leaving because they’re dissatisfied with the job climate in the district.

The association’s president, Rodolfo Espinoza, disagrees with Cooper’s assessment that the number of teachers leaving the system doesn’t equate to a crisis. He said district officials should work harder to retain teachers.

“They’re doing nothing to address the root causes: the evaluation system, the testing bureaucracy that intrudes into the classroom and imposes all sorts of mandates on teachers and their instruction. Now, you have the added potential financial impact of the budget and the increased class sizes,” he said.

Espinoza is a social studies teacher at Lafayette High. His wife, Kathleen Espinoza, plans to run for a seat on the School Board in the fall elections.

Rodolfo Espinoza said teachers are nervous about their job security and how the budget decisions will affect the classroom. About 300 jobs could be cut, though district officials have said the budget cuts may impact only 100 positions, due to attrition.

“People are concerned about their jobs,” Espinoza said. “They’re very concerned about the student-teacher ratio. They’re concerned about the long-term health of the district.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills