Lafayette SB struggling over budget cuts

Rather than fill its $23.5 million budget shortfall using plans proposed by the superintendent to dip into rainy day reserves and sales tax revenues, the School Board on Thursday examined its own proposed cuts line-by-line to bridge its funding gap.

Their first cut: $17,529 to wipe out the board’s own travel budget, which pays for members to attend conferences and training sessions.

The nearly $269 million budget presented Thursday includes more than $3 million in additional cuts suggested by Central Office staff, in addition to cuts proposed by board members.

The board’s process of reviewing the first handful of proposed cuts, which included its own budget, the superintendent’s office and district legal fees, took more than an hour. As of 9 p.m., the board was continuing its department-by-department review.

The board voted 6-3 to cut Superintendent Pat Cooper’s budget by about $51,000, including $43,700 for contracted services and $7,135 for marketing and public relations. Board members Shelton Cobb, Mark Cockerham and Kermit Bouillion voted no.

In another 6-3 vote, the board cut legal services by $17,504 — money for a law firm that represented Cooper last year when the board formally reprimanded him. The board then voted 6-3 to add $108,000 for other legal expenses to cover the cost of a general counsel. The amount had been removed for the board to consider reverting to the free general counsel services offered by the District Attorney’s Office. The board removed the DA’s Office as its general counsel in November.

For the remainder of the night, the majority of votes continued to fall along 6-3 divisions with Cobb, Bouillion and Cockerham standing as the minority, supporting proposals offered by Cooper and the staff.

Another 6-3 vote cut nearly $300,000 with the elimination of the district’s community collaborations and partnerships department, with the exception of salaries for a webmaster and receptionist for the central office lobby. The two retained positions together cost about $88,000 a year. Angela Morrison, the department’s director, reminded the board that she’s worked to help improve community and parent relations, raising nearly $600,000 to support school programs.

Cooper cautioned the board from cutting Morrison’s position because she’s one of the few minority directors at central office. Board member Hunter Beasley said he didn’t see how race was an issue in the decision.

Board member Rae Trahan said that while Morrision’s department is a worthy expense, it’s a luxury, given the board’s $23.5 million deficit.

“When you have to make a choice of cutting a teacher in a classroom or an SRO on a campus or this community outreach, I have no problem making this decision.”

Cooper told the board not to be surprised to see Morrison’s position back in the budget, citing his authority as outlined in state law to hand-pick his own personnel.

Before the vote, Bouillion asked the board to consider its actions and feared the ramifications.

“I think that what we’re doing here tonight is that we’re slowly shooting ourselves in the foot and we’re going to cripple ourselves,” Bouillion said. He later added, “I’m afraid you’re going to see a drop in attendance in the public school system. They’re going to be running to the charter schools tomorrow.”

In a 5-4 vote, the board eliminated all travel costs across departments. The suggestion, made by board member Mark Allen Babineaux, led to a chain of supervisors appealing to the board on the importance of training for teachers, counselors and staff who work directly with students. Some professional development also is tied to grant requirements. Supervisors asked for flexibility in reducing travel costs rather than a blanket cut.

“We all recognize the need for a cut, but not down to zero,” said Bradley Cruice, director of the district’s health and wellness programs.

Retired educator Pat Sonnier told the board that in the past when the travel budget was cut, departments made appeals directly to the board when there was a need.

“It wasn’t a carte blanche thing. It was item by item,” Sonnier said.

Board members Trahan, Babineaux, Greg Awbrey, Tommy Angelle and Tehmi Chassion voted to eliminate all travel budgets. Beasley joined Bouillion, Cockerham and Cobb in casting “no” votes.

The painstaking review process won out over new options offered earlier in the meeting by Cooper to use varying amounts of the 2002 sales tax fund and the general fund reserve account. The 2002 half-cent sales tax is used to boost teacher pay, and money left over in the account each year is sent to teachers in a bonus check. Last year, teachers received a bonus check averaging $2,200. Dipping into the tax fund to balance the budget means less money for teachers and essentially places them in the role of scapegoat to pay for the district’s operations, Lafayette Parish Association of Educators president Rodolfo Espinoza told the board before it voted on one of the options offered by Cooper.

Bouillion proposed that the board consider the option that would use the least amount from the general fund reserve — $8.8 million. That option also calls for teachers not to receive any bonus check because nearly $10 million in the 2002 sales tax fund would be used to help offset the budget.

Bouillion was the only member who voted in support of the option. Cobb abstained. That option is now off the table.

Dale Brasseaux, speaking from the audience, cautioned the board against using the sales tax to help balance the budget because voters approved it for a specific purpose — making teacher salaries more competitive. He warned the board that if they dip into the tax, they would lose the public’s trust — which is essential if they propose any future taxes.

Cooper has suggested a new tax will be needed to address projected future shortfalls.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.