EBR School Board approves budget, but will revisit salaries

After much debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday approved a $438 million general operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year but plans to return on July 24 to reconsider employee salary schedules.

Thursday’s vote comes weeks later than normal. The board historically has approved this budget before the start of each fiscal year on July 1. The general fund is by far the biggest of dozens the board handles, representing more than two-thirds of all spending.

The salary schedules, which were changed as a result of 2012 legislation, have been controversial from the beginning.

“As a whole I like the budget,” board member Barbara Freiberg said.

Freiberg, however, added that she wants the board to consider paying greater stipends to highly effective teachers with 11 to 20 years’ experience who don’t have a master’s degree.

Board member Vereta Lee complained that the new schedules hurt some veteran employees and unfairly reward other employees.

“Some people are riding on cloud nine with the salaries they got this year,” Lee said.

Several bus drivers also spoke out Thursday, saying their new salary schedule penalizes veteran employees and that they want that document revisited as well.

“You all know how lousy this is and as usual the bus drivers get the crumbs,” bus driver Susie Kendrick said.

The vote was 6-3 in favor of the budget:

voting For: Jerry Arbour, Lee, Mary Lynch, Kenyetta Nelson Smith, Tarvald Smith and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

voting Against: Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason and Freiberg,

Board members Craig Freeman and David Tatman did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

This year, unlike years past, principals were tasked with cutting their own school-level budgets by 4 to 8 percent but sparing classroom teachers. Schools where 90 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would have to cut 4 percent.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor also has called for across-the-board cuts for Central Office departments, a move that prompted the letting go and early retirement of some veteran school administrators.

Taylor, however, said he has been working with schools to make sure that genuine needs are taken care of.

Board member Ware-Jackson noted the outcry from parents about the proposed loss, later modified, of a visual arts teacher at Baton Rouge Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Ware-Jackson said the school system needs to find ways to protect magnet schools like BRCVPA that have special themes.

“They would like a policy to preserve the vision of the school,” Ware-Jackson said.

Taylor said it’s a good debate to have.

“When resources become tight, how you maintain the viability of programs becomes difficult,” he acknowledged.

The board on June 19 postponed approving the budget, saying it wanted to learn more about the consequences of accepting or rejecting an offer from Aramark, the private company that maintains school buildings and grounds. Aramark offered to grant the school system $2 million in cash, plus $3 million worth of repair projects, in exchange for an early renewal of its contract, which expires in spring 2016.

On Thursday, Taylor said he’s adjusted the budget so the $2 million from Aramark is unnecessary. Instead, he said he’s persuaded three district-sponsored charter schools — the Mentorship Academy, Children’s Charter and J.K. Haynes — to lower enrollment limits, amounting to $2.8 million in savings.

“The conversations you have with Aramark doesn’t have to be tied to this,” Taylor said.

He noted the School Board is paying a growing amount each year to charter schools, about $17 million more next year than last year.

“This is an issue you’re going to be talking about next year and the year after that and the year after that,” Taylor said.

The resulting 2014-15 general fund budget clocks in at $438 million in revenue, but only $419 million in spending.

The budget includes a 4.3 percent increase in spending but only a 1.3 percent increase in revenue. The result is $19 million in overspending, causing the system to draw from its reserves. The estimated reserves at the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year now come in at about $17 million.