Lafayette school board sharpening ax for more cuts Monday

The Lafayette Parish School Board will pick up its red pen again Monday to try balance a $23.5 million shortfall in its operations budgets.

So far, the board’s line-by-line review of proposed cuts has barely made a dent in the shortfall, with only $700,000 in cuts identified. The board has just under $23 million more to go.

The board is expected to move on to the meat and potatoes of the general fund budget —its instructional cost accounts — at its meeting Monday. Decisions board members make Monday night will determine whether classroom sizes will grow and if the teaching corps and number of counselors and social workers will shrink.

“Principals are on edge. Every day that we don’t hire a teacher, that’s a good teacher that gets away from us,” Superintendent Pat Cooper said Friday.

The School Board signaled its intent to carefully inspect district spending when it last met on Thursday, spending six arduous hours culling the budget.

The effort produced only $681,514 in cuts to accounts related to the school board, superintendent’s office, maintenance operations and special programs like summer school and the child welfare and attendance office.

The board reviewed suggested cuts and questions about expenses that were suggested by board members. The budget shared at Thursday’s meeting included a majority of cuts proposed by board president Hunter Beasley and board member Mark Allen Babineaux. Babineaux had questions about nearly $9.7 million in expenses and Beasley questioned about $985,000 in expenses, said Billy Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer.

The budget inspection was in lieu of any discussion of proposals from Cooper to offset the shortfall.

Cooper had proposed different scenarios using various combinations of the board’s rainy day fund, sales tax revenues and budget cuts, but those approaches were rejected without discussion. An effort to get one of the options passed failed with only one board member, Kermit Bouillion, backing it.

It’s unclear if some of the board’s actions will actually stick.

Several times during the meeting, Cooper warned board members that their cuts may conflict with the terms of his contract and state law that allows him to select his own personnel.

He said he doesn’t plan to eliminate some positions that were cut by board action Thursday, including the salary for Angela Morrison, director of the district’s office of community collaborations and partnerships.

The board cut more than $200,000 from Morrison’s department, leaving only the salaries for two positions — webmaster and front office receptionist. Board member Rae Trahan justified the cut saying the department is a luxury that the district can’t afford right now.

Morrison isn’t going anywhere, Cooper said Friday.

“I tried to tell the board that they don’t have the power to cut positions,” Cooper said Friday. “They can give me a total dollar figure and a total number (of employees), but I have to assign and organize the school district as I see fit.”

He said when he was hired two and a half years ago, board members said they wanted to get the community on the school system’s side. He said Morrison has played a major part in getting the local Chamber of Commerce and business people behind the school system and its reform efforts.

Beasley, the board’s president, said Thursday it’s not clear how Cooper plans to pay to undo the board’s intended cuts.

If Cooper keeps Morrison on the system’s payroll, it wouldn’t be the first time he has paid an employee after the board removed funding for the job from the budget.

Last year, the board eliminated funding for a special assistant to the superintendent position, but Cooper retained the employee citing his authority in state law as superintendent. That decision placed him at odds with some board members who later voted to hire an attorney to launch an investigation.

“We say ‘no’ and he does what he wants to — whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t think it’s proper,” Beasley said. “We supposedly control the purse strings, but I’m sure everybody could argue about that.”

Some of the cuts proposed by board members during Thursday’s meeting baffled supervisors.

At one point, Babineaux wanted to cut the maintenance department’s budget to replace and repair locks and doors to net a savings of about $84,800. Facilities planning director Kyle Bordelon answered a series of questions about the process of switching out and repairing locks and then asked whether the board intended to cut the entire locks budget.

“So, we won’t have any funds available to repair doors and locks?” Bordelon asked.

The locks budget was saved, but not the budget for board members, Cooper or any employee to travel to attend conferences or other types of professional development. Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer, said impact of the cut totals $234,404.

Board members Bouillion, Beasley, Shelton Cobb and Mark Cockerham voted against an across-the-system cut to travel but supported cutting travel money form their own school board accounts.

Cooper said he doesn’t see how the board can avoid using other sources of revenue that exist in the district’s rainy day fund and in a 2002 sales tax fund. The board has rejected prior proposals to balance part of the shortfall with those two funding sources.

“I think there’s a performance going on of: ‘We’re going to cut the fat and save teachers’ salaries,’ ” Cooper said of Thursday’s six-hour meeting. “That’s not going to happen. There’s not enough to cut to save jobs. We’re going to have to go into the rainy day fund and we’re going to have to go into the sales tax.”

Beasley defended the board’s work of identifying reductions. He said he thinks the board can find at least $6 million, if not more, in cuts to help reduce the shortfall by at least a fourth.

“We’re trying to whittle this down some and I’m happy with the process so far,” Beasley said Friday.

Using the 2002 sales tax, which would mean a smaller annual bonus check for teachers and other employees , isn’t an option, Beasley said.

“I thought that we, as a board, had made that clear,” Beasley said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.