Public school officials seek funding from state

Public school leaders pleaded with the state board of education on Tuesday to ask the Legislature to end Louisiana’s four-year freeze on basic state aid to schools.

They said that, at the least, education officials should make a pitch for schools to get a 2.75 percent increase in state aid, which was the traditional amount for years until budget problems surfaced.

“Just send it to the Legislature,” said Lee Meyer, a member of the Assumption Parish School Board and vice president of the Louisiana School Boards Association. “If they don’t like it they can send it back,” Meyer noted.

“Put in on their back,” Meyer added. “You know we need it.”

Last year the Legislature, at the request of Gov. Bobby Jindal, approved a $3.4 billion spending plan for Louisiana’s roughly 700,000 public school students for the current school year.

The spending level marked the fourth consecutive year that, aside from enrollment increases, state aid remained the same for teacher salary supplements, textbook purchases and other costs.

State services face a shortfall of nearly $1 billion for the financial year that begins on July 1, mostly because of persistently disappointing state revenue collections.

That means any boost in state aid for public schools is iffy at best.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said he has heard rumors that basic state aid to public schools may actually be cut for the upcoming financial year.

Monaghan said such speculation focuses on the possible need for new state dollars to fund vouchers, a Jindal-backed plan that allows some students who attended troubled public schools to move to private and parochial schools at state expense.

The future of the program is unclear amid a court challenge over the legality of how the vouchers are being funded.

“I would urge that the rumors remain rumors,” Monaghan told members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The 2013 regular legislative session begins on April 8.

BESE will submit its request to state lawmakers before then, and the House and Senate can only accept or reject the spending plan but cannot change it.

However, the state panel has recently taken its lead from Jindal, who has numerous allies on the board.

Michael Faulk, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said school districts are suffering from drops in enrollment, rising retirement costs and health expenses rising by 6 to 8 percent per year.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the state continues to pass on additional costs to local school districts despite a 2010 law that is supposed to prevent that.

At the same time, Richard said, districts face higher costs for improved school safety, new academic assessments and other issues.

In 2007 and 2008, when state finances were considerably brighter, state school aid rose by 3 percent and 6 percent respectively.

However, the lack of any such hikes since 2009 has sparked layoffs, frozen salaries and raids on rainy day funds.

Jindal and others say that, even with the four years of general freezes, Louisiana has managed to avoid yearly reductions in state aid for public schools, unlike several other states.