Board gives principals some leeway in hiring

The Lafayette Parish School Board on Tuesday gave principals and other supervisors authority to make some hiring decisions that have been left in limbo for the past few weeks, although the school system is still facing job cuts.

The board voted Tuesday to save 17 social worker and 37 instructional strategist jobs that were on the chopping block to balance what remains as a more than $7 million budget shortfall. The board also voted to give staff the authority to make hiring decisions based on prior board budget decisions. Employees report to school on Aug. 5 — a week ahead of students’ return Aug. 12.

Another major advance for the board in the budget process was that it ended its lengthy, account-by-account review of its general fund with a single vote Tuesday that approved suggested cuts to dozens of accounts.

The full impact of the board’s decision Tuesday had not yet been calculated, but prior to the vote, the board chipped its $7.3 million shortfall down to $7.2 million, Matt Dugas, finance director, said after the meeting.

The board meets again to discuss the budget at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

The board in a 4-1 vote agreed with a suggestion by board member Rae Trahan to approve the remaining recommended cuts. Kermit Bouillion was the only board member to vote no. Trahan, Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tommy Angelle voted in support. Board members Mark Cockerham and Shelton Cobb left the meeting early and were absent for the vote. Board members Tehmi Chassion and Greg Awbrey did not attend the meeting.

Prior to the board’s vote, Cajundome director Greg Davis asked Superintendent Pat Cooper about the impact the board’s suggested cuts would have on the district.

“Cuts made as they stand would be devastating to our schools,” Cooper told him but added that the board plans to hold another meeting to address supervisors’ specific budget appeals during a meeting on 5:30 p.m. July 24. At that meeting, the board will need to consider a reduction-in-force policy to begin the layoff process based on prior board budget cuts, chief financial officer Billy Guidry said. In prior meetings, the board reduced the employee count by more than 100, including positions for teachers, assistant principals and counselors. A super-majority or at least six votes is needed to implement a reduction in force.

It’s been the most thorough review of the budget in recent years with board members culling the budget to submit their own suggestions of cuts coupled with those recommendations from staff. Early in the process, Cooper criticized the board for “nit-picking.” The shortfall began in mid-May at $23.5 million. Guidry told the board that its against-the-wall deadline for final approval of the budget is Sept. 15. That final approval could come as soon as Aug. 15.

Early in the meeting, the board rejected Cooper’s personnel budget that involved saving all positions, including reinstating the more than 100 positions cut by the board in prior meetings. His plan involved using more than $9 million from the rainy day fund to balance the budget.

At one point in the meeting, Cooper and board attorney Bob Hammonds had conflicting opinions about the board’s authority over the budget related to Cooper’s authority over personnel decisions.

“The board determines whether the positions exist. The superintendent determines who goes into those positions,” Hammonds said.

Cooper responded, “He’s said several times, it’s an opinion. I have a different (opinion). Maybe, we just have to bring this to court to figure who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t intend to let go of what state law says.”

Other decisions made Tuesday included an estimated $500,000 expense to lower class sizes at J.W. Faulk Elementary to 17 students per teacher. The school is the district’s only F-rated school, and Cooper had requested the board approve lowering the ratio to 15 students per teacher. Cooper has said the district’s unitary status, reached eight years ago to close a 41-year-old desegregation lawsuit could be jeopardized if the board failed to approve some staffing recommendations. On Tuesday, Trahan read from the consent decree in the case, which stated low-performing schools in the district should maintain staffing levels of 15 to 1, while at-risk students should be in classrooms with no more than 18 students in elementary grades. She suggested the 17-to-1 ratio, which the board approved in a 4-3 vote. Cobb, Bouillion and Cockerham voted against it with Beasley, Babineaux, Angelle and Trahan in support.

Last year, the school followed the same staffing levels as others in the district at 23 students in grades kindergarten through third grade; 25 students in fourth grade; and 28 students in fifth grade. When questioned about the Faulk class sizes, Cooper said funding to lower the class sizes was a part of the district’s turnaround plan, which was not funded by the board last year.

“The turnaround plan has always had that in there,” Cooper said. “We’re at the point now that I’m scared because of the (desegregation) case, and it’s something that we can’t ignore. We should have done it last year, absolutely, but we didn’t.”

Prior to the vote, Greg Davis, who lives a few blocks from Faulk, asked the board to support the recommendation to cap class sizes at the school to 15 students.

“We need that area of our community to be a thriving area. It all starts at Faulk,” Davis said.

Also, Tuesday, the board voted 5-2 for a cross-department cut to mileage and cell phone reimbursements at an estimated savings of about $580,000. Board members Bouillion and Cobb voted against the cut while Babineaux, Cockerham, Beasley, Angelle and Trahan voted in support.

Prior to the vote, several supervisors urged the board to retain the reimbursements because employees use their personal vehicles to reach students — including itinerant teachers who visit homebound students and technology workers who troubleshoot issues at schools.

Christine Duay, director of early childhood education, said asking itinerant teachers to work without mileage reimbursement cuts into their salaries.

LaShona Dickerson, instructional technology director, said her technology support workers work at 45 sites in the district and take service calls while on the road or working at other schools.

“When they’re on the road, there’s no desk phone for them to use,” she said. “There’s no cellphone reimbursement, I can’t ask that they answer their (personal) cellphone.”

Trahan said the board could consider budget appeals after the budget is balanced and then suggested that perhaps the board could implement a reduction-in-force policy to cover the cost of mileage and cell phones.

The comment riled Cobb, who said he hoped Trahan’s comment about layoffs was a “bad joke” and if not, it was in “poor taste.” Cobb then criticized some board members for drawing out the budget process: “I think I need to be excused. I’m no longer going to put up with this kind of stuff.” Cobb waited until he cast his vote against the cut to the reimbursements before walking out after clocking about two hours into the nearly 3 ½ hour meeting. Cockerham also exited shortly after and did not return.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.