Superintendent: Fiscal crisis looms for Lafayette schools

Superintendent Pat Cooper and School Board members asked area legislators on Wednesday to push for a funding increase for public education and for relief from some unfunded state mandates to help the district overcome a $12 million deficit in the next school year.

“This is a crisis year for us. I think we can be stable this year and not hurt the classroom because we’ve had good sales tax revenues, but after this year, we’re in trouble,” Cooper told six legislators who represent Lafayette Parish voters during a legislative breakfast at the Picard Group offices.

School officials presented a list of advocacy issues to legislators, including an appeal for at least a 2.75 percent increase in the Minimum Foundation Program, the formula the state uses to allocate per pupil funding.

For the past four years, districts haven’t received the 2.75 percent increase, which resulted in a cumulative loss of $10 million for the Lafayette Parish School System, according to Billy Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer. The financial impact of proposed changes in MFP allocations for special education students is unknown, he said, but is also a concern.

The district has few options to reduce $12 million from its budget in the upcoming fiscal year, Guidry said.

“I keep seeing our revenues going down while our student population is remaining constant, and in the past few years, has actually grown,” Guidry said.

The current financial forecast means the district will have to stall the implementation of the second year of its six-year turnaround plan, which also negatively affects plans to grow immersion programming, Cooper said.

“A local bond issue is the only way we can survive,” Cooper said.

State Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; and Reps. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette; Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette; Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette; Terry Landry-D-Lafayette; and Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, attended the meeting.

Lafayette Parish School Board members Shelton Cobb, Mark Allen Babineaux, Rae Trahan, Mark Cockerham, Kermit Bouillon, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion also attended.

Major educational reforms are being felt in the classroom as teachers are faced with mandated curriculum changes and a new evaluation process weighted by student performance, Edgar Martin Middle School teacher Abby Breaux told legislators prior to their meeting.

She asked legislators to consider changes to the evaluation process.

“We don’t mind being evaluated ... but to have test scores determine whether we lose our job or not is a real iffy thing,” Breaux said.

Students are also being overtested — with more than 30 assessments given annually, she said.

Breaux told legislators that discipline is also a major issue for teachers in the classroom with students provided too many chances to return to the classroom and continue disruptions. Those issues can — and will be — addressed at the local level, Cooper told her and legislators.

Robideaux suggested the group, along with local officials, meet quarterly.

“At the end of the day, Lafayette is going to have to take care of Lafayette; we can’t count on the state to do it,” Robideaux said. “If we really want to effect some change, we all have to be on the same page. What can we do in Lafayette? What can we do in Lafayette to maximize the MFP?”

Unfunded mandates — state requirements without additional dollars to implement them — have cost the district about $4 million annually since the 2011-12 school year, Guidry said. He said the district will need to spend an additional $6.2 million before 2014-15 school year to buy computer hardware to comply with the state’s switch to online standardized testing.

Other examples given of unfunded mandates included dual enrollment, summer remediation for students who fail the high-stakes Louisiana Educational Assessment Program Test, professional development, national board certification stipends, providing transportation to non-public school students and extended sick leave.

Since 2011, nearly $2.2 million of the district’s MFP dollars have followed students attending schools outside the district — either virtual schools or private and parochial schools as part of the state’s new scholarship program that began this school year, Guidry said. At least 137 students received scholarships or vouchers to attend private or parochial schools this year at a cost of more than $800,000 in MFP funding for the district, Guidry said.

A state district judge ruled the diversion of state funds for the voucher program was unconstitutional, however, the state has appealed the decision. Guidry asked legislators to carefully consider the voucher programs’ impact on districts, as well as the effects of changes in the MFP related to special education funding.

The cumulative effect of no growth in the MFP, increased retirement contributions, loss of MFP funding to other programs, unfunded mandates and reductions in state and federal grants was $31 million this school year and is estimated at $42.9 million next school year, Guidry said.