School Board: Tax plan nixed for lack of support

Potential construction on agenda

A new tax to fund Lafayette Parish schools — the bricks and mortar and the learning that goes inside the buildings — likely won’t hit the School Board floor again for consideration until late 2014 — after School Board elections in the fall, Superintendent Pat Cooper said.

An agenda item at the board’s Nov. 20 meeting to issue a public notice that a potential tax election for the spring would be discussed by the board in January failed to find a second motion of support on the board floor and died without board discussion.

“There’s no sense proposing something if the same people are on the board,” Cooper said.

The tax recommendation came from a community education planning committee that began meeting in March under a charge from the board to find a way to fund district needs and mesh facility needs with the district’s educational plan.

The committee supported various options of a combination of sales and property taxes, though no specifics were recommended.

Without additional revenues, the school district faces a nearly $14 million deficit based on estimates of retirement contribution increases and other state mandates when it begins its budget process in the spring, Cooper has said.

“I intend to come back to the board to use a portion of the fund balance to maintain not only the status quo — but to move forward with our turnaround plan,” Cooper said. “We can’t move forward with it to the extent we would like to, but anything we can do to inch forward will be a benefit to us.”

In prior years, budget cuts have been made that protected classroom instruction, but that likely won’t be possible this year unless a portion of the fund balance is used, Cooper said. He estimated that by the spring, the fund balance could total about $72 million.

“We have plenty of money in that fund balance for at least one year to maintain the status quo and move forward,” he said.

The board met with committee members Nov. 16 during a facilities retreat to discuss tax proposals to fund $415 million in district needs, which included funding of salary increases for support employees, the district’s educational turnaround plan and more than $380 million in facility needs.

About 40 members served on the committee, which has met 13 times since March. The committee’s work was facilitated by a professional consultant, Brent Henley. The district paid $15,000 for Henley’s services, which included facilitating the meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings such as data and information gathering, and board reporting, according to information provided by the district.

Bruce Conque, vice president of community development for the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, facilitated the Nov. 16 retreat at no cost to the district.

The list of facility needs included the replacement of portable buildings throughout the district such as Prairie Elementary where 33 classrooms are in portable buildings. More than 900 students attend the school in grades kindergarten through fifth, and the school also houses the district’s only preschool French immersion class.

Prairie principal Cayce Booher said the portables present challenges at the school, where even its permanent classrooms have exterior walkways.

“Moisture sets on the concrete (sidewalks) and we’re having to wipe it down. There are zero hallways on campus,” Booher said.

Some major school renovations and portable building replacements are underway in the district paid for by a $30 million bond sale. The board is set to discuss at a Wednesday meeting the building of new schools in the district with a presentation by a former board member on how construction projects were funded in the past.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux said he’s uncertain if he would have voted in support of putting a tax before voters. He said he would have preferred a tax proposal that separated facilities, educational programs and salary increases into different propositions, rather than grouping the issues together. The last time the board went to voters was in October 2011 and a property tax proposal, which would have paid for more than $560 million in school construction and repairs, and a separate maintenance tax failed. Babineaux said many opponents of the 2011 tax proposal cited mistrust of the board as the cause for the failure.

“The taxpayer didn’t trust the way the board would spend the money. If you have that mistrust going in, I don’t see how you’re going to overcome that environment by mixing programs and mixing raises for some personnel,” he said.

Babineaux said his own mistrust of Cooper’s prior decisions on personnel issues and the superintendent’s support of charter school applications that the board rejected also would likely prevent him from supporting a tax.