School systems battling budget woes

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Bill Feig /
Bains Elementary teacher Sarah Fudge, center, talks to families of students displaced from Tunica Elementary, which the West Feliciana Parish School Board shuttered to help close a $1.8 million deficit. The school closure is one of many budget cuts local school districts have made in advance of the 2011-12 school year. At right, Adison Summers, 5, isn’t quite as interested as the adults in the discussion at Tuesday’s orientation.

Officials say they try to keep cuts out of classrooms

With big gaps between the money they’ve come to expect and the ever-growing cost of running public schools, school leaders from several south Louisiana districts have enacted millions of dollars worth of cuts but claim they have steered clear of the classroom.

“Our superintendent doesn’t want to hit the classroom. We cut, and non-instructional is the first place we went,” said Diane Allison, Ascension Parish’s director of business services. “Some departments, including my department, will suffer, and we do that because we understand what’s important.”

Zachary Superintendent Warren Drake described a similar approach of strategic cuts meant to affect the classroom as little as possible.

“I think we’ve become a leaner and meaner organization, and I think we’ll be better for it,” Drake said.

Students and parents will find out for themselves if that’s really the case as the 2011-12 school year begins.

Some are finding out already.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of families trekked to visit their children’s new school, Bains Elementary in St. Francisville. It’s 13 miles south of Tunica Elementary, a small school of just 110 students that the West Feliciana Parish School Board voted in May to close.

In the process, Superintendent Hollis Milton said, the school system plugged a third of its $1.8 million shortfall and will eventually save an estimated $1 million a year.

Principal Dot Temple assured the Tunica families gathered in the school gym that Bains, one of the highest-performing schools in the state, is very similar to their old school in terms of its offerings.

“The only thing that may make you uneasy is the size,” Temple said. “We have seven sections of every grade here.”

Joseph Lamartiniere, who works at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as do many of the Tunica families, said he thinks his son Peyton will enjoy Bains. The school, however, is a 25-minute drive from the family home and is far less convenient than Tunica Elementary.

“I think there’s no worry about the quality of the school, it’s more about the length of the bus ride,” he said.

Ester Bacchus, who moved to the Tunica community after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, said she doesn’t have a car to get her grandson, Kendricke, to school. The school bus will now arrive closer to 6 a.m. than the 7 a.m. pickup time he had last year.

Scenes like these remain rare but could become more commonplace if the budget woes of public schools continue.

School leaders blame their districts’ financial problems on declining tax collections, flat state education funding, the end of federal stimulus funding, increasing costs for salaries and benefits, the diversion of state and local funding to charter schools, and cost-shifting by the state to local school districts, most significantly in employee retirement costs.

The state government, meanwhile, is tentatively projecting an overall $300 million shortfall in 2012-13, much less than the $1.6 billion the state cut from its 2011-12 budget.

Local superintendents hope to win two separate fights this year to avoid further budget cuts:

• The restoration, after three years of flat funding, of annual 2.75 percent increases in funding for school districts. This funding is found in the Minimum Foundation Plan, or MFP, which the Legislature approves every year.

• Holding the line on more increases in retirement costs. Over the past two years, the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, citing lower returns in its investment portfolio because of the economic downturn, has increased the local cost share from 15.5 percent to 23.7 percent, costing school districts millions in added expenses.

Public school superintendents also want the state to resume picking up the tab for some or all of the cost of transportation of nonpublic school students, remediation for students retaking the state LEAP test, and stipends for National Board-certified employees. The state now requires school districts to pay these costs in full.

Central is one of the only school districts in Louisiana that has avoided budget cuts this year, but Superintendent Michael Faulk said he’s not sure that can continue if the state doesn’t change direction.

Smaller, poorer school districts may not be able to weather another year like this one, Faulk said.

“You have school systems on the verge of bankruptcy and if something’s not done, they’re going to lose it,” he said.

Across the country, the picture is similar and, in many cases, worse.

In June, the Center on Education Policy released a survey of 457 public school districts nationwide and found that during 2011-12, three quarters of those districts had cut teaching positions and more than half cut back on teacher training and facilities maintenance. About 38 percent of the surveyed districts had cut back on student extracurricular programs and activities and 6 percent had cut the amount of instruction time, moves that local schools have largely avoided so far.

The districts in the national survey indicated they expected more of the same in 2011-12 as federal stimulus money disappears.

“No type of district appears to be immune from budget reductions or staff cuts,” the center found. “Shrinking budgets and cuts in education jobs have affected and will continue to affect all types of districts — city, suburban, town, and rural.”

Locally, school closings are perhaps the most dramatic example of what’s different in what parents will see as the 2011-12 school year begins.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system closed Brookstown and Banks elementary schools. Baton Rouge Children’s Charter School has shut down its small middle school. An alternative school in Lafayette is closing due to state budget cuts.

For most public schools, though, cuts to payroll are the first and unavoidable place to go.

Mike Schexnayder, a partner with Postelthwaite & Netterville, an accounting firm that audits many local school districts, said 80 to 85 percent of school expenses are tied to employee salaries and benefits.

“You’re either going to lay people off or you’re going to try to reduce people’s pay in some way,” Schexnader said. “It’s very difficult to have any cuts without some affecting payroll.”

Whether the cuts affect the classroom depends on whom you ask and the severity of the cuts.

In the spring, the specter of layoffs was raised when several school districts sent out notices calling for reduction in force, or RIFs, directed mostly at non-instructional personnel. In the end, almost all employees who received RIF notices found other jobs in their respective school systems.

One area where parents might notice the budget cut impact is in higher class sizes. While the districts didn’t lay off teachers, most local school districts increased class sizes, in the process eliminating teaching positions.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, an average of two more additional children will fill classrooms in grades 4 to 12, representing about 200 fewer teaching positions.

Baker is looking at raising class sizes even more, at least in its early grades. Class sizes in elementary schools will increase from about 20 students to about 26 students to cover its budget shortfall, interim Superintendent Ulysses Joseph said. That stems from not filling about seven or so elementary teaching positions, he said.

The teachers who are left aren’t exempt from pain. Several local districts have enacted pay freezes or made other changes to shrink employee pay.

Zachary is one of the few districts that managed to come up with an employee pay raise. Teachers, however, will no longer collect stipends for helping the school district maintain its No. 1 academic ranking in the state and for perfect attendance, $500 and $100 per teacher respectively.

In July, to avoid layoffs, Livingston Parish enacted a pay freeze and canceled three days when employees, but not students, came to school. Besides lowering teacher pay, the change results in less teacher training. It also eliminates a day in October when parents came to school to meet with their children’s teachers. Now those parents will have to schedule such conferences during regular school hours.

“What we did, we did in order to lessen the impact,” Superintendent Bill Spear said.

Other cuts will be visible to parents and students.

At a savings of $4 million, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system canceled year-round schooling for children at Claiborne and Park elementary schools. Instead, those schools will have the regulation school year of 180 days. Superintendent John Dilworth had championed the move to year-round education but said he couldn’t justify continuing, given the gravity of the cuts the school system had to make.

Other potentially noticeable cuts include fewer field trips, fewer teachers who target help to struggling students or coach other teachers, longer bus rides for some children, fewer computer purchases, and delayed facility maintenance.

Some superintendents said they are hoping the next state superintendent of education can help.

Currently, Ollie Tyler, a veteran school administrator from Caddo Parish, is the acting state superintendent.

Gov. Bobby Jindal wants John White, the new superintendent of the New Orleans-based Recovery School District, to replace recently resigned Paul Pastorek, but Jindal has been unable to persuade the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to go along. Elections to BESE this fall may well decide the issue.

Zachary Superintendent Drake and several other superintendents have pushed for someone like Tyler to replace Pastorek, who was combative and disliked by many traditional public school administrators, and refocus on supporting traditional public education.

“To me, public education is the most important thing,” Drake said. “Of course, people in health care will say health care is the most important, but public education affects more than anything else.”

Notable cuts

East Baton Rouge

• About 200 fewer teaching positions.

• Closing/consolidating alternative schools.

• Delayed bus purchases.

• Close Banks and Brookstown elementary schools.

• Consolidated three alternative schools into one.

•Ended year-round schooling at Park and Claiborne elementary schools.

Ascension

• Eliminated 13 non-instructional positions.

• 10 percent cut for all departments.

• Fewer substitute teachers.

• Less employee travel.

• Delayed bus purchases.

Baker

• Eliminated seven teaching positions.

Central

• No cuts.

Lafayette

• Shift from block schedule to seven-period day.

• Pre-K enrollment reduction.

• Delayed bus purchases.

Livingston

• Eliminated 86 teaching positions.

• Salary freeze.

• 10 percent cut for all departments.

• Employees work three fewer days.

• Delayed bus purchases.

West Baton Rouge

• Eliminated 33 job positions, 22 of them teachers.

Zachary

• Eliminated nine full-time and four part-time positions, six of them teachers.

• Fewer substitute teachers.

• Canceled stipends for training and for perfect attendance, among others.

• Outsourced lawn-mowing services.