Lafayette budget hole grows as board balks at ‘rainy day’ fix

Budget hole deepens

The $20.6 million hole in the Lafayette Parish School Board’s budget Thursday slowly grew as board members added to programs and services it wants paid for from the school system’s general fund rather than tapping into a rainy day fund and a special sales tax fund designated for salaries.

The board faced major decisions, such as whether to cut 15 guidance counselor and 13.5 assistant principal positions, for a cost savings of about $2.3 million.

The board voted 6-3 late Thursday against using the rainy day funds to pay for the assistant principal positions, which means the board may need to enact a reduction in force policy if it doesn’t find a funding source for the positions.

Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Kermit Bouillion, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted not to use the general fund reserves to fund the positions. Board members Shelton Cobb, Hunter Beasley and Mark Cockerham voted against the motion.

Carencro High Principal Ken Roebuck appealed to the board to retain the assistant principal positions because his school has improved significantly with the extra support.

“Our school is moving in the right direction, so I’m asking you, I know this is a rainy day fund, I ask you to consider it,” Roebuck said.

Angelle said he supported the additional assistant principals, particularly for Carencro High, which is in his district.

But he said he could not support funding the positions with using the general fund reserves.

“I hope in the process of this budget that we can fund these assistant principals,” Angelle said.

Babineaux said he would prefer the board spend funds on programs that directly support the classroom, rather than paying salaries of assistant principals.

Nearly three hours into the budget meeting, the board cut the meeting short after board members questioned why they were continuing to debate matters they felt had already been settled. They noted that they had voted early in the meeting not to tap the rainy day fund and sales tax fund designated for salaries.

The early adjournment was supported in a 5-4 vote with Beasley, Bouillion, Cockerham and Cobb voting to adjourn without completing the board’s agenda.

During the first half of the lengthy board meeting, board members and the public debated the use of excess revenues in the general fund and from its sales tax collections.

The board ultimately voted against using either funding source to balance what grew from an $18 million shortfall last week to $20.6 million on Thursday with the addition of more than $2 million to pay for additional teachers and support at the district’s lowest performing school, J.W. Faulk Elementary and its 10 D-rated schools.

The shortfall in the general fund continued to build as board members rejected proposals to fund appeals for teaching positions over current staffing ratios and other recommended expenses from the 2002 sales tax fund.

It was unclear late Thursday whether those positions and other expenses will be funded or how they will be funded. The board meets again next week to continue its budget discussions. Thursday’s meeting was an opportunity for the board to give financial staff the direction to continue the budget process.

Cobb proposed that the board use at least $11 million of its available $66 million rainy day fund, but his motion received support only from two other board members — Bouillion and Cockerham.

Board members rejected an idea to use excess from a 2002 sales tax fund dedicated for teacher salaries. The proposal failed in a 7-1 vote with only board member Cobb in support. Cockerham abstained.

Prior to the board’s vote, some educators opposed the use of the sales tax fund saying the tax passed with assurances to teachers and the public that it would be used to boost teacher pay. Excess funds from the account are divvied up among certified teachers as a supplemental check. Last year, teachers received about $2,100 and using the sales tax fund excess would have meant a smaller check for teachers in the upcoming school year, said Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry.

“Keep that promise to educators and the public,” said retired Lafayette High teacher Melinda Mangham.

The board faced a difficult choice of disappointing teachers or hurting students in the classroom, said Greg Davis, who said his neighborhood is zoned for the district’s lowest-performing schools.

Davis said he believed that if the board did not use the excess from the sales tax fund that “any chances of a turnaround of those schools where I live is going to be gutted.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.