Teacher groups weigh in on budget cut proposals

Board must balance $25.3 million general fund shortfall

Leaders of the two groups that represent about half of the Lafayette Parish School System’s teaching corps joined forces Wednesday to decry proposed budget fixes that would affect the classroom and strip teachers of a pay boost they receive annually from excess sales tax collections.

As the School Board considers ways to balance a $23.5 million shortfall in the school system’s general fund, “the priority must be our students and the classroom itself,” Rodolfo Espinoza, president of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, said during a news conference Wednesday held jointly with the Lafayette chapter of Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana.

School Board members are scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Thursday to once again try to hash out a plan for balancing the district’s operating budget.

In advance of that meeting, Superintendent Pat Cooper released on Wednesday three potential new scenarios for closing the budget shortfall. The proposals call for using varying amounts from a 2002 half-cent sales tax fund, the district’s general fund reserves and savings from administrative cuts.

Cooper’s proposals are aimed at protecting jobs and preventing an increase in the student-teacher ratio, which was proposed to increase by two students.

So far, the board has repeatedly rejected proposals to cover as much as $10 million of the deficit using excess revenue from the 2002 sales tax fund, which the district had been using to help keep teacher salaries competitive. Annually, excess revenue in the account is divvied up among teachers and other personnel, such as librarians, counselors and school psychologists. Last year, the bonus check was about $2,200.

In one scenario offered by Cooper, teachers would not receive a bonus check. Instead, they would receive an annual salary step increase of about $450 to $500 matched by an increase in their salary by the same amount from an increase in per pupil funding that districts must use for teacher pay.

In the second scenario, teachers would receive about $1,200 in a bonus check, as well as a pay boost from the step increase and per pupil funding.

Teachers would still receive a bonus check of about $1,200 in the third scenario, but no annual step increase to their salaries, which would save $1.5 million.

The board will consider the options Thursday.

Espinoza questioned why the general fund, which covers the district’s operating and instructional costs, has ballooned over the past few years — from about $240 million in 2011-12 to an estimated $272 million in the upcoming school year.

“We must correct those two fundamental issues facing our school system: for-profit charter schools and overspending,” Espinoza said at Wednesday’s news conference.

Espinoza said the operating budget has grown in part because of the rising costs the district has little control over, such as unfunded state mandates.

District administrators have said there are a variety of reasons the district’s expenses have increased, including the rising cost of retirement contributions and employee insurance.

They also estimate that about $12 million of the per pupil funding the system gets from the state is following students who are leaving Lafayette Parish schools to attend new charter schools that will open in the district.

The figure represents nearly half of the current shortfall — an unfair burden teachers may have to bear, Espinoza said.

“It is astonishing that the current proposal by the superintendent is for our employees to literally pay for these charter schools out of their own pockets,” Espinoza said.

Current budget cuts on the table could eliminate or reduce the number of employees working in various parts of the school system, including alternative education teachers, instructional strategists, nurses, social workers and counselors.

The district sent employees eligible to receive the bonus check from the 2002 sales tax fund a link to an online survey asking for their opinion on the impact of those employee groups who may be cut from the budget and how willing they’d be to receive less money in their bonus check.

Both local teacher organizations submitted their own surveys to their members asking for input on the budget crisis.

“We encourage teachers to check their email and give feedback on the surveys,” said Debbie Thrower, vice president of the local chapter of APEL. “This (budget) will affect more teachers than anyone else in the system.”

Thrower said she’s been unable to access the district’s online survey because someone hacked into the school system’s email system and teachers must now reset their passwords to access their accounts.

Cooper acknowledged the email account issue on Tuesday, as well as the sharing of the survey link on social media sites, as flaws in the district’s plan to gather teacher input on the budget process. He said the next step may be to ask teachers to turn in the surveys by hand.

The LPAE survey provides teachers an opportunity to submit suggestions of how to offset the shortfall — which was missing in the district’s version, said Jonathan Cole, vice president of LPAE.

“We’re exploring some of the ideas teachers have at the school level,” Cole said.

Cole criticized district officials for waiting until now to reach out to teachers since the board began its general fund discussions in May.

“We want to be treated as professionals. We wanted to be included,” Cole said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.