EASLEYVILLE — St. Helena Parish school officials have begun making the case for two tax proposals that will go before parish voters later this year.
The School Board voted 4-1 during a special meeting Thursday to place two ad valorem propositions totaling 25.8 mills on the Nov. 6 ballot. The meeting was in the former New Zion Elementary School off La. 38 east of Kentwood.
Board member Alton Travis, who represents the 6th Ward where the meeting was held, voted against the move.
Under the two proposals, a 10-year, 16.4-mill tax would help provide raises for the district’s teachers and staff, while a 40-year, 9.4-mill tax would back an $8 million bond issue for renovations to the elementary and high school campuses.
The school district made great strides during the past year, becoming the most-improved district in the state on test scores and cutting its deficit by more than $1 million, Superintendent Kelli Joseph told residents of the parish’s northeastern corner.
But continuing to move the district forward will require additional revenues, she said.
The elementary and high school facilities are in deplorable condition, and teachers frequently leave the district for higher-paying positions elsewhere, she said.
School officials considered six different proposals, some of which included building new elementary schools on the north and south ends of the parish to replace those, like New Zion, that were abandoned under school consolidation plan ordered in a federal desegregation case in the late 1980s.
However, the options that called for new schools would require too high a millage for residents to accept, Joseph said.
The 25.8-mill package was the least expensive of the options and would help the district stabilize its core in preparation for future growth, Joseph said.
“I think y’all are doing a great job, but we’re a hard sell,” resident Joshua Conleay said during public comments Thursday.
Conleay said after the meeting that he wants more for the schools, but years of distrust have made it “hard to hear good news.”
Conleay asked board members what would happen if voters reject the proposal, and if U.S. District Judge James J. Brady imposes a tax as part of the desegregation case, whether the court-ordered tax would likely be higher or lower than the School Board’s proposal.
“He doesn’t want to come in and impose something on us,” board President Edward “Scott” Galmon said. “That won’t pull us together as a community.”
Travis said he could offer only a guess, but he doubted a court-imposed tax would be lower than what the School Board is seeking.
Resident Richard Sandberg, pastor of the neighboring New Zion Baptist Church, wanted to know what, if any, differences there were between the current proposal and tax propositions that failed in the past.
In May 2010, the School Board sought a 20-year, 55-mill property tax to raise $2.1 million for teacher and employee salaries. The measure failed 1,613 against to 1,015 in favor.
Voters also defeated a 25-year, 37-mill property tax backing a $20.4 million bond issue in July 2008, with 1,536 against and 1,152 in favor.
A similar bond issue likewise had failed nine months previously.
The current proposals, however, are more specific in their use of funds, more reasonable in the amount and would be managed by a group of officials who have worked hard to restore public confidence in the district, Galmon said.
The salary millage would raise certified teacher pay by $6,000 per year and noncertified employee pay by $3,500 per year, Joseph said.
The second millage would allow for renovations to the high school gym and auditorium, elementary school classrooms and gym; renovation of the elementary school’s cafeteria; new parking, a new driveway and an eight-classroom addition for the elementary school; as well as a 1,500-seat football stadium, lighting, track and field house, she said.
Lewis “Rick” Sullivan, the new principal at St. Helena Central High School, urged residents to share his faith in the potential of the district.
“I came here because of your leadership, because of your vision, and it would be a drastic shame if that wasn’t pushed forward,” Sullivan said.
The School Board and superintendent will hold similar public hearings in other areas of the parish, holding their September meeting somewhere in the southern part of the parish, Joseph said.