Lafayette SB rejects Cooper’s ninth attempt at less-severe budget cuts

The Lafayette Parish School Board rejected the ninth staff proposal to close a more than $20 million budget shortfall, deciding instead to continue its own search for areas to cut.

Tuesday’s meeting was the board’s 12th on the general fund and Superintendent Pat Cooper’s ninth pitch for the board to approve staff-recommended offsets to balance the budget in lieu of the board’s deeper cuts to instructional departments, such as blanket reductions to mileage and cellphone reimbursements, elimination of money for employees to travel for conferences and training, and reducing the employee head count by more than 100.

The board began its general fund process in mid-May with a $23.5 million shortfall. Now, it stands at $6.1 million with the board-approved cuts.

The new proposed list was supported Tuesday by only two board members: Mark Cockerham and Kermit Bouillion. Board members Mark Allen Babineaux, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted against it. Board members Greg Awbrey and Shelton Cobb were absent.

The new proposal starts at the $20.4 million shortfall mark and undid the majority of cuts the board had previously approved. The new proposal would use about $5.7 million of the board’s reserves, or rainy day fund. Board policy requires the board to set aside at least three months of its operating expenses in reserves for financial emergencies. Use of the $5.7 million would draw the reserve down to a little more than 2.7 months of operating expenses.

The new list includes some items the board previously supported: such as eliminating about $1 million in smaller capital projects and $332,483 for national board certification stipends; and not using $1.2 million of the district’s increase in per pupil funding from the state on teacher salaries. The list proposes restoring some cuts the board made to regular education, special education and assistant principal staff positions and also funding $520,000 for extra teachers for J.W. Faulk Elementary.

Babineaux questioned using one-time money, such as funding for smaller capital projects and the $5.7 million rainy day funds, to reduce the shortfall.

“It raises a red flag in my mind,” he said.

Babineaux said the board had reduced the shortfall by about $7 million from its own review of the budget and he wants to see the board continue that process on Thursday.

Cooper said the parish’s economy is strong and he believes the district would be able to recoup those one-time funds in increased sales tax revenues. He said the district also expects a $2 million carry-over of funds that weren’t spent this school year.

“Last year, we used about $4.8 million in fund balance and we collected that back within six or seven months,” Cooper said. “In the situation we’re in today … nobody thinks that we’re going to have a downturn. Until we can get ourselves situated to ask for a tax, I don’t think it’s a gamble. I think it’s a bona fide financial decision to think that we’re going to get those tax dollars.”

The board’s review of the budget has been exhaustive with some meetings lasting six hours or longer. On July 15, the board approved blanket cuts of its instructional accounts and told department supervisors to make their appeals at its next meeting to restore the funding.

Board members said they had expected to resume their review and hear from supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting and questioned why the staff’s new proposal was the only related item on the agenda.

Beasley, the board president, told board members he “incorrectly assumed” they’d resume their general fund review, but he did not view — nor approve — the agenda prior to its release to the public. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, he said he will submit an agenda item for Thursday’s meeting to include a review of the general fund accounts.

During the discussion of why the agenda was abbreviated, board member Tommy Angelle said, “I understand the strategy.”

Cooper responded, “The strategy is to try to get a balanced budget. We’re doing exactly what the board asked us to do.”

The board received a list of its approved cuts so far — nearly $6.3 million — and the supervisors’ list of appeals — nearly $5.8 million. If the board approves the supervisors’ full list of restoration appeals, only $487,757 would be cut, reducing the shortfall to about $5.6 million.

The board next meets on the budget at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, and depending how much progress they make, they could meet again at 8 a.m. Saturday. The goal is to have a final draft ready for public review from Aug. 11-22 and a public hearing and final adoption on Aug. 27.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.