Lafayette SB budget battle quiet as it heads to public hearing

After more than a dozen meetings and budget proposals, the Lafayette Parish School System administration’s version of a $270 million spending plan for the 2014-15 school year will be available to the public starting Aug. 28.

The School Board spent weeks reviewing the budget to offset a $23.5 million shortfall in lieu of accepting more than a dozen balanced budget proposals offered by Superintendent Pat Cooper.

During Tuesday’s meeting, chief financial officer Billy Guidry told board members they did not need to vote immediately on the administration’s proposed budget because it was being shared with them merely as an informational item of what is being presented to the public.

The board agreed to hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at 4 p.m. Sept. 11 followed by a special meeting to consider adopting the document. “We’re informing the board that this is a document that we’ll be presenting for public inspection,” Guidry said. “When we come back on (Sept.) 11th, the board will have the opportunity to accept it or amend it moving forward.”

If the board makes substantial changes to the proposed budget, a second hearing and meeting will be held on Sept. 15 — the deadline for the board to adopt a budget to meet a state time line for submission to the state superintendent of education by Sept. 30.

If the board fails to meet the Sept. 30 deadline, the school district’s financial health could be impacted, Barry Landry, state education department spokesman, said in an email.

“The department sends a letter of non-compliance with state law to a school board failing to meet the September 30 deadline to submit an adopted budget,” Landry said. “Additionally, this letter of non-compliance is noted in the (school district’s) annual Financial Risk Assessment, affecting (its) financial health and potentially leading to the department monitoring (its) finances or requiring a detailed Departmental review,” Landry said.

The board and Cooper have disagreed over which version of the budget should be presented to the public.

Cooper refused to move forward with the board’s version, which cut about $9 million in expenses the superintendent said would place the school system in violation of board policies and state and federal laws.

Cooper’s latest budget plan, presented Tuesday, would restore nearly $9 million in cuts made by the board and includes an expected $6.4 million boost in overall sales tax collections based on last year’s increase of about $6.8 million.

In contrast to prior budget meetings, Tuesday’s session lasted less than an hour and was conducted with little discussion among the board members. Cooper did not speak at all during the meeting, letting Guidry address the board about the administration’s latest budget proposal.

Following the board’s Aug. 14 budget meeting, Cooper issued a statement that he would not advertise the board’s version of the budget and, after consulting with the legal department at the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office, he’d present the public a version of the budget he had prepared and the board would be able to amend it following a public hearing.

Board members did not question this process during Tuesday’s meeting.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.