School Board makes headway on cuts

The Lafayette Parish School Board continued chipping away at what was a $23.5 million shortfall to approve nearly $13 million more in cuts within the first three hours of its meeting Tuesday.

In three prior meetings, the board reduced the shortfall by about $3 million to start its work Tuesday with a $20.4 million deficit. Within about five hours Tuesday, it had reduced the shortfall to $7.7 million.

The meeting was a change of pace from prior board meetings where members reviewed accounts line-by-line in a process that took as much 61/2 hours in one meeting and 6 in another. On Tuesday, the board considered a list of about $16 million in cuts supported by board members Rae Trahan and Hunter Beasley.

The board’s work on the budget is far from done — the next meeting is scheduled Thursday, and more meetings are expected to follow.

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved $5.6 million in cuts to align regular education staffing for teachers, counselors and assistant principals with current staffing formulas. The action cut 55.5 teaching jobs, 9.5 counselor jobs and 13.5 assistant principal positions. The decisions didn’t move the needle on the shortfall because those proposed cuts had previously been subtracted from the shortfall, explained Billy Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer. There was no discussion during the meeting prior to 10 p.m. about the implementation of the district’s reduction in force policy; however, in prior meetings when cuts to counselor and assistant principal positions were discussed, Guidry said a reduction in force would be needed.

In a rare 4-4 vote, a proposal to cut $520,000 to eliminate team teaching at Edgar Martin Middle and Scott Middle schools failed after school staff praised the model for boosting school performance. In the model, a small group of teachers acts as a team to develop lessons and also track student progress. The proposal would have eliminated eight teacher positions — four at each site.

Board members Beasley, Kermit Bouillion, Mark Babineaux and Shelton Cobb voted against the cut, while board members Greg Awbrey, Tommy Angelle, Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted for the cut. Board member Mark Cockerham was absent for the vote.

The board approved another $1 million in cuts to reduce special education positions to align with staffing formulas. However, information on how many positions are impacted wasn’t immediately available. In addition, the board reduced the shortfall by more than $3.4 million when it reduced the number of staffing appeals principals can make for more teachers and counselors.

The board voted 5-3 to eliminate $390,000 from the budget by removing deans of students from Carencro High, Lafayette Middle, Moss Preparatory and Northside High. The deans handle discipline issues on the campuses.

Angelle spoke in support of the dean positions, saying he’s seen firsthand the impact the additional help has had on reducing discipline issues on the campus of Carencro High.

“Discipline has improved immensely and I think by keeping these deans that we will continue to improve discipline,” he said.

Only he, Bouillion and Cobb voted against the cuts to the dean jobs. Awbrey, Babineaux, Beasely, Trahan and Chassion voted for the cut. Cockerham was absent for the vote.

Earlier in the meeting, Cobb questioned the consequences of the board’s cuts as it moved quickly through Trahan’s suggestions. Human resources director Bruce Leininger said attrition would cover only about 60 percent of the proposed reductions, though he did not have actual figures available at Tuesday’s meeting.

Cobb, Bouillion and Cockerham voted against the staffing cuts, and voted together in opposition against cuts proposed throughout the meeting. Board members Awbrey, Babineaux, Beasley, Angelle, Trahan and Chassion voted in support of the staffing reduction.

Trahan noted that the decision does not increase student-teacher ratios, though prior to the vote, several counselors and principals appealed to the board to consider the impact the cut would have on classroom teachers.

Fewer counselors and administrators on a campus places more burdens on the classroom teacher, said Ken Roebuck, Carencro High principal.

Early College Academy Principal Anne Castille faulted the process used to determine staffing because it’s based on enrollment projections from the past two years and her school is among the newest in the district and growing every year. Based on enrollment projections, she’s estimated to have 179 students in August; however, 263 students are enrolled.

“If that’s going to occur, I can’t lose any teachers,” she said.

Based on the enrollment projection of 179 students, her school would have only a half-time counselor — a hardship for any high school campus, but particularly one that needs to work closely with South Louisiana Community College on student scheduling, she said.

“We’re not going to maintain the quality of education we have with a half-time counselor,” Castille said.

The decision removes 9.5 counselor positions impacting several schools, including high-poverty, struggling schools such as Alice Boucher Elementary and J.W. Faulk Elementary. Beverly Breaux, director of student services, said other schools impacted if the counselor positions are lost: Katharine Drexel, S.J. Montgomery and Prairie Elementary schools; Acadian, Paul Breaux, Broussard middle and Judice Middle schools; Carencro High, Lafayette High, Early College Academy, the Career Center and Moss Prep.

Carencro High counselor Joey Mouton asked the board to stop its cuts to schools and dip into its rainy day fund, the prior years’ surpluses built up in the general fund.

“We’re sitting on $60 million,” Mouton said.

The meeting began with the board’s rejection of yet another balanced budget proposal from Superintendent Pat Cooper to offset the shortfall with some board-supported budget cuts, but also $9.7 million in revenue from the 2002 sales tax account, a move that local teacher groups and a majority of board members opposed. Only board members Cobb and Bouillion voted in support of Cooper’s latest budget proposal.

Board members and Cooper have differing opinions on how the money collected may be used. Beasley suggested the board seek a legal opinion on the issue. However, Awbrey asked the board to defer the request until board members review the original ballot proposition and the related administrative plan that outline how the money could be spent. Cooper said he spoke with four attorneys who agreed the money could be used to pay for teacher salaries and to offset the shortfall, but he would not provide their names when prodded by Chassion.

Board attorney Bob Hammonds offered a presentation on the proposition and plan. The board, however, deferred its decision on whether to request a legal opinion.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on July 9, 2014, to correctly reflect that the board considered a list of about $16 million in cuts supported by board members Rae Trahan and Hunter Beasley.