Safety net size up for debate

The Lafayette Parish School Board begins its budget process with an estimated $10.4 million shortfall and some board members don’t seem too keen on a proposal to plug a large part of that hole with the rainy day fund.

A proposal is on the table to change the board’s economic stabilization fund, or rainy day fund, policy to free up money that would help fill the shortfall next year and projected shortfalls of up to $21.7 million by 2017-18.

The policy change would reduce the requirement to save at least three months of operating expenses, amounting to about $63 million, to two months of operating expenses, which would be about $42 million.

The board plans to vote on the proposed policy change at its regular meeting Wednesday and last week received a breakdown of the projected budget outlook for the next four years as a total of five charter schools are phased into the parish.

As the schools open — three charter schools are scheduled to open in August — the district could lose up to $7 million in its state student funding that will follow students who leave Lafayette Parish schools to enroll in the charter schools.

The board’s rainy day fund totals $66.4 million, an excess of $3.1 million over the board’s three-month operating expenses policy. If the policy were to change to only two months of operating expenses, the excess would grow to $24.2 million.

The policy change would enable the board to bridge part of this year’s estimated shortfall with about $8.4 million and fill the remaining shortfall with $2 million from the 2002 sales tax fund, district Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry told board members last week.

The board is scheduled to vote on the policy change and the proposal to tag $2 million from the 2002 sales tax at its regular board meeting Wednesday.

In the past, the board has been reluctant to dip into its excess savings in the rainy day fund to balance past budget shortfalls. Last year, rather than use its rainy day fund, the board took about $4 million from its capital fund — an account for construction projects — to help balance the budget and paid for projects as surplus tax revenues became available during the school year.

Guidry met with the board in a special meeting Thursday to provide details on projected budget shortfalls and discussed the proposals to fill the void.

During the special meeting, board members Rae Trahan and Mark Allen Babineaux opposed using the reserves, and board member Greg Awbrey questioned the legality of earmarking the $2 million from the sales tax fund, which is dedicated to certain initiatives such as teacher pay raises and lowering class size.

Guidry said the district can pay for $2 million in teacher positions with the sales tax fund if it saves those positions from being eliminated or reduces class size.