Cooper informs School Board of funding options in weekend memo

Superintendent suggests dip into funds or make cuts

The Lafayette Parish School Board could avoid nearly $12 million in cuts to the classroom if it opts to dip into its rainy day fund and sales tax revenue, Superintendent Pat Cooper informed board members in a weekend memo.

The board meets May 20 to review its general fund, which includes spending related to the classroom.

In the memo, Cooper proposed two budget scenarios to address the estimated $11.9 million shortfall. In one scenario, board members could use $9.9 million in rainy day funds and $2 million in sales tax revenue to cover some teaching positions.

The second scenario involves increasing student-teacher ratios and eliminating programs such as school resource officers, the Chinese immersion program and reducing preschool class and staff at Moss Preparatory, the district’s second-chance program for students removed from school because of behavior issues.

“If we have to make all these cuts, then we’ve gone backward a long way and it’s going to be very difficult to make up that ground,” Cooper said Monday.

Cooper and Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry began school visits Monday to brief employees on the budget outlook. Cooper released the budget scenario information to local media over the weekend, along with a prepared statement.

The district’s 100 Percent In, 100 Percent Out turnaround plan, enacted in 2012, needs funding for it to work and for progress in the district to continue, Cooper said.

Some board members have questioned the plan and the past year has been a rocky one with the board formally reprimanding the superintendent and standing on opposite sides of some of his management decisions. Their discord also seems to be the inspiration of bills under consideration in the legislative session.

The district estimates it could lose about $12.6 million in state per pupil funding that will follow students who enroll in three new charter schools that open in August. Some board members continue to challenge Cooper’s support of the schools.

The board denied the charter schools’ applications, but the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved them. Cooper attended the BESE meeting and testified in support of the schools, saying they were needed to address overcrowding.

Cooper said he expects push-back from some board members about the charter schools during the budget process.

“Certainly, the cuts we’re facing today, part of them are due to charter school issues, but the vast majority is cuts from the state,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t matter at this point. They’re here. BESE gave them permission. We have to solve this problem and I think we have the money to do it.”

Cooper’s prepared statement suggested the board would rally against the budget scenario suggestions.

“It is not fair to the children, teachers and community for members of the Board to dismantle the public schools simply because they dislike the superintendent or decisions made by me,” Cooper wrote. “I won’t suffer but everyone else will.”

To save money, more students could be added to classrooms through a one-student increase in the student-teacher ratios for general education courses at a savings of $1.3 million.

If changed, it would mean up to 24 students in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, 26 students in fourth grade classrooms and 29 students in grades five through 12 classrooms.

Special education classrooms could see a two-student increase at a savings of $520,000.

Board President Hunter Beasley said he would not support an increase to the student-teacher ratios.

“I’ve always been against that,” Beasley said.

Other proposed cuts include no annual step increases to the salaries of teachers and support employees and no more stipends for teachers who receive National Board Certification.

After a review of the proposed cuts, Beasley said: “Really, there’s not much I do like.”

Beasley said he hoped that the board will consider using a portion of its reserves or it will face decisions on where to make cuts to balance the budget.

He said he thinks the board should discuss changing its rainy day policy.

The board sidelined the suggestion that it change its rainy day fund policy earlier this year. Current policy requires the board retain three months in operating expenses in the reserve fund. Cooper has proposed changing the policy to a reserve of 2.5 months of operating expenses, which would leave $56.5 million in the reserve account.

A tax initiative proposed to voters next year could prevent future cuts, but the board would need to start the groundwork now for incoming school board members elected in the fall 2014 elections Cooper advised in the memo.

A new tax could minimize or eliminate cuts over the next two to three years, Cooper said.