Committee discusses ways to improve Lafayette schools

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Facilitator Brent Henley, standing, left, conducts the first meeting of the Lafayette Public School System Community Education Planning Committee Monday night at the school board office.        MAGS OUT/  INTERNET OUT/ ONLINE OUT/ NO SALES/  TV OUT/  FOREIGN OUT/ LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT (INCLUDING GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT, 225, 10/12, INREGISTER, LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS) MANDATORY CREDIT THE ADVOCATE/ BRYAN TUCK Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Facilitator Brent Henley, standing, left, conducts the first meeting of the Lafayette Public School System Community Education Planning Committee Monday night at the school board office. MAGS OUT/ INTERNET OUT/ ONLINE OUT/ NO SALES/ TV OUT/ FOREIGN OUT/ LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT (INCLUDING GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT, 225, 10/12, INREGISTER, LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS) MANDATORY CREDIT THE ADVOCATE/ BRYAN TUCK

Panel to plot course to fund educational, facility upgrades

A 40-plus member committee’s mission to devise a plan for educational and facility improvements, including ways to fund the improvements, started Monday with what was described as a “data dump” on the current status of the Lafayette Parish School System.

The School Board appointed 45 members to offer recommendations on how to integrate the district’s facility needs with its six-year, educational turnaround plan and how to fund those improvements. About 35 committee members attended Monday’s meeting.

The “data dump” included status reports from Superintendent Pat Cooper and the district’s chief financial officer Billy Guidry. The initial session was designed to “ramp up the knowledge” of committee members who will make recommendations to the School Board by June 30, said Brent Henley, a consultant with The Pyramid Group.

Henley is serving as the committee’s facilitator.

Guidry told the group that increases in unfunded state mandates and reductions in state and federal support have created a tough financial situation for the district requiring difficult choices.

Committee member Donna Landry asked what kind of concessions the district has made to fund the mandates locally.

“It’s hard to pinpoint but some of the things … We went from block scheduling to seven-period days at high school,” he said. “With regards to in-school suspension, we went from teachers to para-educators to cut the cost there.”

Guidry said the district will enter its budget planning process with a $12 million deficit, which isn’t atypical. He said the board has been able to “whittle” deficits down in the past.

“But we’ve done those things and we’ve done them three years in a row. That concerns me,” he said.

Cooper said the anticipated budget deficit is stalling the second year implementation of the system’s six-year turnaround plan.

“What our priority is is not to hurt the teachers and kids in the classroom,” Cooper said.

At the group’s next meeting on March 25, Henley said, it will start reviewing school-by-school facility needs outlined by principals.

Cooper told the committee members that the principals’ list totald about $275 million, which includes four new schools for the district and creating permanent classrooms to replace portable buildings.

In January, Cooper pitched a 10-year, 15-mill property tax for the educational turnaround plan and a temporary one-cent sales tax for up to six years dedicated to facilities improvements.

Guidry said the 15-mill property tax was once on the books, but rather than ask voters to renew it, the district opted to utilize sales tax revenues to pay off debt for school projects.

A few months ago, the district sold $30 million in bonds that will be repaid with sales tax revenues, Guidry added. The bonds will fund improvements at six schools.

After explaining the district’s financial history, Guidry said: “At the end of the day, we’re maxed out on what we can do internally.”

On Monday, Cooper said his dual tax pitch was a “conversation starter.”

“We know that will raise the money but that may not be the way to do it,” Cooper said.

That decision will be up to the committee, he added.

Cooper estimated the cost of educational programming over the next 10 years at $300 million, with another $275 million needed to address facilities.

The total for programming and facilities is less than the $1.1 billion in facility needs outlined in the district’s master plan, Cooper told the committee.

In October 2011, voters rejected a 20-year, 23-mill property tax increase to fund $561 million in facility projects outlined in the first phase of the district’s facilities plan and a 20-year, 2-mill property tax dedicated to maintenance. The tax proposal was a recommendation by a community oversight committee that organized in late 2010 after the board received its facilities master plan in May 2010.

After the master plan tax failed, opponents criticized the School Board for mismanaging its existing funds by not properly maintaining school buildings and for the absence of a master plan for educational improvement in the district.

Cooper told the committee that the district has expressed those concerns in the educational turnaround plan and in economical improvements made to Northside High School and N.P. Moss Preparatory Academy.

Prior to the meeting, committee member Mandi Mitchell said as a product of Lafayette Parish School System she wanted to be a part of creating a comprehensive plan to help the district “get where it needs to be.” One question the committee will answer is: “how can we sensibly get there?” she said.

“Maybe the question is: what type of additional resources could we ask the public for. I’m going in wanting to be informed and educated,” Mitchell said.

The group will continue to meet biweekly and begin drafting its recommendations at its June 3 and June 17.

Henley said the goal is for the committee to offer its final recommendations to the School Board by June 30.