Lafayette board makes more cuts, but budget deadline nears with four weeks until school

Cooper pushes alternate plan

The Lafayette Parish School Board reduced its budget deficit by less than $350,000 Thursday, but with the start of school just four weeks away, it still faces a $7.38 million shortfall and has yet to decide how many educators it will employ.

By the end of a four-hour meeting Thursday, the board approved $346,212 in cuts — $332,000 of that was a single cut to stipends for national board certifications, but it affects only those employees who received certifications after July 1, 2013.

Before the board ended its meeting, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau appealed to the board to move to the instructional staffing accounts as soon as possible.

“All of the principals who are sitting behind me are extremely concerned about not being able to fill their positions that they currently have open,” Billeaudeau said.

After board member Tommy Angelle suggested the board pick up with those accounts at a meeting Tuesday, principals in the audience let out a collective “No!”

Angelle called for the meeting to adjourn — stopping any further decision-making related to the budget. The board next meets on Tuesday and will take up Billeaudeau’s request to make decisions about staffing.

On Thursday, the board continued a line-by-line look at instructional services accounts but deferred decisions on several accounts either because supervisors were on vacation or because board members requested additional information.

By hour four, board President Hunter Beasley told the board it needed to pick up the pace because it had reviewed only a handful of accounts and had a growing list of accounts that it deferred.

Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry said more than 60 accounts remained for them to review.

The board began its meeting Thursday with a shortfall of $7.7 million ­— a feat, considering it started the process in May with a $23.5 million funding gap. The board’s review of its general fund has been a slow one, with prior meetings in the past few weeks lasting between five to 6½ hours. Final adoption of the budget likely won’t occur until late August.

And next year the board faces another steep hole to fill, with a deficit projected at $20 million.

Jobs that remain in the budget this year may not receive the same saving grace next year, Beasley said.

Only new revenue will change the board’s financial situation and chances are slim the public would support a tax, said board member Tehmi Chassion.

“We’re going to have to beg the voters, and we’ve been doing a lot of petty arguing. They don’t trust us,” Chassion said.

Superintendent Pat Cooper took the opening to tell the board it could take the first step in formal discussion of a new tax proposal by passing a resolution. To bring a tax to voters by spring 2015, the board needs to take a final vote on a tax proposition by January 2015, Guidry said.

Early in the meeting, the board discussed the possibility of using its rainy day fund ­to balance its remaining shortfall. Board policy requires the board maintain at least three months of operating expenses, which is about $66 million at this time, in the fund, Guidry said.

Chassion said he’d prefer to use the reserves rather than see people lose their jobs.

“I’m in support of doing whatever I need to do to keep everyone in place for one more year,” he said.

But when board member Shelton Cobb suggested the board use the fund to bridge the $7.3 million shortfall, only he and board member Kermit Bouillion supported it. Prior to the vote, Chassion said he didn’t object to using the reserves but preferred to continue with the budget review to see how much the board could whittle from the accounts yet to be reviewed. Angelle agreed but added he wants to see the reserves used for nonrecurring expenses.

Cobb said it sounded like some board members were “crawfishing,” a remark that later veered board business off track, with Chassion calling Cobb out for the reference and Beasley asking board members to refrain from name calling.

Cobb defended his use of the crawfishing term, saying he was referring to someone backing up or out of a stated position.

“I’ve been accused of calling someone a name,” Cobb said. “They’re called verbs.”

School starts Aug. 12, and teachers report to work on Aug. 5.

The drawn-out budget talks influence principals who have not been able to create their master schedules and prepare for teachers’ arrival in early August, said Cooper as he appealed to the board to approve his newest — and seventh — balanced budget proposal.

Once again, the board rejected the proposal,which would have undone the majority of the $13 million in cuts the board approved in a meeting held earlier this week.

Beyond the logistics of preparing for the schools to open, Cooper said, he feared the board’s cuts could jeopardize the unitary status it achieved eight years ago, which closed a 41-year-old desegregation lawsuit. Some cuts approved by the board earlier this week eliminated more than 100 positions, including teachers, counselors, assistant principals and deans of students, who assist with discipline.

“I believe these cuts open the door to a viable discrimination complaint to the federal court,” said Cooper, who reminded the board that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a discrimination complaint related to the discipline of a student.

Chassion said he was offended by Cooper’s assertions that the board doesn’t understand the gravity of the budget situation.

“Everyone who sits here is taking this job so seriously they lose sleep at night,” Chassion said. “To lose one person to this process is upsetting — let alone 100.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.