Lafayette school board considers budget shortfall

Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper appealed to the School Board on Tuesday not to “dismantle” $4 million in programs and people and to instead tap its rainy day fund to cover its budget shortfall.

Some board members disagreed with Cooper’s recommendation to withdraw money from the reserve account, which totals $69 million, particularly since last year it took out about $4.7 million to balance a budget shortfall.

After Cooper reminded board members that they recouped the amount in sales tax revenue increases and the trend would likely continue, board member Tommy Angelle suggested the board spend those increases as it receives them.

Cooper responded, “Here’s the issue with that: If we dismantle $4 million worth of programs and people right now, when the revenues come in, we can’t ramp that up.”

The board began discussing its $258 million spending plan for operational costs from the general fund last week. However, board members asked for additional time to review the budget and requested that staff present a balanced budget.

The school district’s staff presented a budget Tuesday that reduced the $6.7 million shortfall to $4 million and offered a prioritized list of potential cuts should the board opt not to dip into the reserve fund.

The board offered no further direction to staff for additional revisions during Tuesday’s discussions, however, it will meet again at 5:30 p.m. May 28 to review a final draft of the unified budget, which includes its construction budget and other non-operational funds.

To reduce the $6.7 million shortfall, staff projected a 1 percent increase in property taxes, which boosts projected revenues by $583,373, said Billy Guidry, the school system’s chief financial officer.

Initially, property tax revenues were budgeted “flat”— without any increase — even though the parish tax assessor projected a 1 to 1.5 percent increase in property tax revenues in the upcoming year.

Other revisions included moving $1.2 million of $1.6 million for annual teacher salary increases out of the general fund and into a designated 2002 sales tax fund and a staff adjustment of assistant principal and counselor positions.

Some schools will lose a half-time assistant principal position, which will displace about 10 assistant principals, said Bruce Leininger, human resources supervisor.

The reserve fund totals $69 million with about $36 million tagged for “economic stabilization” in line with board policy of saving for a “rainy day” to pay operational costs should it be faced with tough economic times.

On top of that $36 million, another $20.4 million in the reserve fund is not earmarked for other uses, according to the budget.

At the board’s request, staff provided the board prioritized proposals if it rejected the recommendation to use $4 million from the reserves. The suggestions include possibly increasing student-teacher ratio by two students, which would yield $4 million in savings.

Board member Kermit Bouillion offered a proposal of his own, questioning the proposed spending of $2.7 million for 37 instructional strategists. The employees assist classroom teacher with curriculum and other professional development.

The positions in the past have been paid with Title I funding. However, the district expects a 10 percent reduction in federal funding and proposed paying the $2.7 million in salaries from the general fund.

Cooper defended the positions: “Instructional strategists are not extra. They’re not fluffs. They’re core (employees).”

Bouillion said he understands the importance of the positions, but can’t support adding two students to the classroom or making young children walk a mile to school or a to catch the bus to make up the shortfall..

“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Bouillion said. “You’re going to increase the student-teacher ratio so you can justify (instructional strategists) ... You said it’s raining right now and we need these funds, but I think there’s a lot of people out there (who) look at this board to balance the budget.”