Despite looming budget shortfall, Lafayette SB loses quorum Thursday

The Lafayette Parish School Board’s ongoing quest to plug a $23.5 million budget shortfall ended unexpectedly in less than an hour Thursday after the board lost its quorum to conduct business.

And that leaves the board with the job of finding the remaining $22.5 million in cuts in order to balance the budget — a chore the board has slowly been slogging through. Three prior meetings took a total of 13.5 hours with the board reducing the shortfall by only about $1 million.

Only five of the board’s nine members showed up at the meeting Thursday, scheduled on the eve of the July Fourth holiday. Just enough for a quorum.

Then, an hour into the meeting, board President Hunter Beasley announced that member Shelton Cobb had to leave because of a family emergency.

Cobb’s absence left only Beasley, Rae Trahan, Mark Babineaux and Tommy Angelle at the table. Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Cockerham, Kermit Bouillion and Tehmi Chassion were absent.

The board took no votes prior to Cobb’s departure.

Thursday’s review was to center on instructional costs, though the discussion was limited to the account of the assistant superintendent, who defended the $40,175 in expenses board members proposed eliminating from her budget. The money is needed for accreditation, which costs about $30,000, and other related expenses, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau said.

Billeaudeau told the board she culled her own budget and identified more than $114,000 in cuts, including difficult choices like removing resources provided by the Acadiana Center for the Arts and field trips to museums.

The board didn’t vote on any of the proposed cuts because by that time Cobb had left the meeting.

Earlier in the meeting, Superintendent Pat Cooper repeated his pitch for the School Board to use nearly $10 million from a sales tax fund typically used to boost teacher salaries with an annual bonus as a way to offset the district’s $23.5 million shortfall.

Voters approved the half-cent sales tax in 2001 and the proposition states the proceeds are to be dedicated for classroom teacher salaries and benefits. The language also calls for a teacher salary reserve fund and sets terms for teachers to receive a 13th check with the interest earned from the reserve account. The funds remaining in the account are divvied among teachers and other eligible employees as a 14th check that last year was $2,200 per employee.

“There is nothing in the ballot proposition that allows for 14th check, and that has to be discontinued,” Cooper said.

How the tax is used has been a point of debate for School Board members and the public. An administrative plan created to outline the uses of the tax also allows the money to be used to lower class sizes, for instructional counseling for teachers and for professional development.

In the past, some employee total salaries have been paid from the sales tax fund rather than the general fund.

Cooper has previously proposed using the sales tax fund to balance the budget, and board members have rejected the idea.

After the meeting, Rodolfo Espinoza, president of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, criticized Cooper’s plan to use the sales tax fund to balance the budget.

“Taxpayers decided 13 years ago to dedicate that tax for teacher salaries, and this administration can’t fill its charter shortfall using dedicated monies,” Espinoza said. He was referring to the $8 million to $12 million the district estimates it will lose in per pupil state funding and tax money that will follow students who opted to enroll in three charter schools to open in the parish in August.

Espinoza said the intention of the tax was to boost teacher salaries to the top in the state as a way to recruit and retain the best teachers. When that priority is fulfilled, then the administration can use the surplus to lower class size and for certain other expenses, he said.

“What we see is that every administration has diverted money from that tax and allowed the teacher average salaries to now go between 20th and 30th in the state. They’re not honoring the intent of the tax,” he said.

Beasley told Cooper earlier in the meeting that he wants a legal opinion about the proper uses of the tax. Beasley said he’ll make that request at the board’s next meeting, at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Another meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 10.