Lafayette school board looks to change rainy day fund

The Lafayette Parish School Board discussed changing a policy that sets aside three months of expenses in a rainy day fund, a change that would free up about $20 million to help fill an anticipated budget deficit of about $15 million.

A decision on the policy change was on the board’s agenda as an introduction item, and the board will take action on the policy change at its March 5 meeting.

The policy requires the board to set aside three months’ worth of operating expenses, or roughly $60 million, said Billy Guidry, district chief financial officer. The proposed policy change reduces that to two months or roughly $40 million be maintained in the reserve fund.

The policy change was proposed to help offset a shortfall that the board will tackle when it starts planning the budget for the upcoming school year in March, Guidry said.

“We’re into year four of making cuts, and we’re at a point where those cuts are going to be a lot more noticeable,” Guidry told board members. “It’s going to impact more people, more specifically the classroom. There’s potential for that.”

Guidry and Superintendent Pat Cooper had called a meeting Friday with the board’s executive committee to outline the budget outlook, but after board member Greg Awbrey requested the information be shared with the entire board, a date for a special board meeting to discuss the expected budget shortfall is pending.

Also Wednesday, the board voted 6-3 to hire Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice as its interim general counsel. The law firm, with offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe, is employed as the board’s special counsel, handling employee litigation and other personnel matters. Board members Kermit Bouillion, Shelton Cobb and Mark Cockerham voted against the motion to hire the law firm. Board members Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Hunter Beasley, Tehmi Chassion and Rae Trahan voted in support of hiring the firm.

In November, the board voted to relieve the District Attorney’s Office as general counsel following Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton Jr.’s handling of the board’s pending request to hire an attorney to investigate the superintendent.

Hamilton wrote the Attorney General’s Office in late October that the investigation wasn’t necessary. District Attorney Mike Harson has said his office would continue to represent the board as its general counsel until it named an interim.

A prior attempt to name interim counsel failed in a 4-4 vote, and the issue resurfaced on the board’s Feb. 5 meeting agenda as an introduction item.

The board has yet to begin its search for a permanent replacement for its general counsel.

In other business Wednesday, the board was set to make a decisions on whether to request an attorney general’s opinion on whether state law gives the superintendent the authority to adjust employee salaries by paying them for more days than the positions are allotted in the salary schedule.

The issue was raised in the board’s annual audit, and auditors advised that the board to seek a legal opinion on the issue.

Also Wednesday, the board was set to decide whether to join a lawsuit filed by St. John the Baptist Parish School Board that challenges the state’s non-payment of a 2.75 percent increase to per-pupil funding in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Last month, a Baton Rouge judge denied class-action status to the lawsuit, meaning school boards that don’t join the lawsuit won’t be able to receive a stake in the funding.

As of Wednesday, 47 school boards had joined the lawsuit and more were scheduled to make a decision at upcoming meetings, wrote Scott Richard, Louisiana School Boards Association director in an email.