Lafayette SB makes progress on budget, but Cooper still in battle mode

The Lafayette Parish School Board finally made major progress on its budget, whittling the shortfall down to $1.3 million Thursday and agreeing to make up the difference from its rainy day account.

The board also agreed to set aside $2.5 million from its general fund reserves — or rainy day account — to consider appeals from staff to restore some of the cuts and for instructional materials.

Board member Shelton Cobb cast the sole vote against using the funds, a total of $3.8 million, from the reserves. Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted in support of it. Board members Mark Cockerham and Kermit Bouillion were absent.

Board policy requires the board to maintain at least three months of operating expenses in its reserve fund. Use of the $3.8 million doesn’t cause the board to dip below three months of reserves, said Billy Guidry, chief financial officer.

The board also unanimously approved its draft of a $270 million general fund to move forward with the process of preparing the budget for public inspection. Final adoption of the budget won’t come until sometime next month after a public inspection period and a public hearing on the spending plan. Cobb also voted against approving the general fund.

Before the board’s vote on the general fund, Superintendent Pat Cooper told the board he did not accept the budget and would present another spending plan for the board to consider. He told the board it’s his responsibility to ensure the board doesn’t violate any laws and he believes they had by not funding some expenses they had removed from the budget.

“We’re not breaking law,” Chassion said and questioned whether Cooper’s intention is to continue submitting budget proposals.

Board attorney Bob Hammonds said the board always has the right to revise budgets.

He said Cooper has the right to continue submitting new proposals, but the attorney questioned the wisdom of doing that. “That process would be never-ending,” Hammonds said. “There has to be some finality.”

Cooper disagreed. “There is no budget yet,” he insisted. “There is no budget to advertise. We’ll bring you back another. … I’m willing to work with you, but this has become a shamble.”

The board on Thursday approved nearly $5.5 million in cuts it agreed to in prior meetings but restored about $770,000 in spending based on recommendations from Trahan. Trahan’s list includes mileage for itinerant teachers, materials and supplies for instructional departments and a few positions that had been previously eliminated by the board: the eCampus supervisor; a coordinator for a program for overage students; and a schools-of-choice marketing coordinator and enrollment specialist.

In another 6-1 vote, the board approved another Trahan recommendation: to restore $135,000 for an Acadiana Center for the Arts program that places artists in the classroom. Awbrey voted against the restoration.

Thursday’s board meeting was the 13th session on the general fund. The budget process began with a $23.5 million shortfall that had been whittled down to about $6 million. Beasley began the meeting by announcing he planned to expedite the process, and while public comments would be considered, he’d likely limit time at the lectern. Typically, public comment is limited at three minutes per person, but when supervisors began lining up to defend their expenses, Beasley told them they had 30 seconds.

“After spending 20-plus hours here, we’re going to get 30 seconds?” Christine Duay, early childhood supervisor, asked, in reference to the numerous meetings held in the past few months. “School starts next week, and some of these are employees who are recommended for cuts.”

Later, athletics supervisor Bobby Badeaux criticized the board for not taking time to consider supervisors’ appeals. Badeaux said the board’s decisions Thursday mean driver’s education students won’t have needed signage, additional mirrors or instructional materials.

“If you’re comfortable with that, so be it,” Badeaux said. Loud applause could be heard from the lobby outside the board room, as Badeaux stepped away from the speaker’s lectern.

Before the meeting ended, Beasley said supervisors would have an opportunity to defend expenses at a future meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, Cooper made yet another pitch to the board to balance the budget. The board opted to move his proposal to the end of the agenda, but they never took it up. The proposal mirrors one rejected Tuesday by the board, except it would use projected sales tax revenue increases, instead of the rainy day fund, to offset the shortfall.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.