Group told trust key to winning Lafayette school tax approval

LAFAYETTE - Trust is going to be the key to the Lafayette Parish School Board winning approval of any type of tax proposition it brings to voters, said one member of a committee charged with identifying a funding plan for educational and facility improvements.

About half of the 45-member community education plan committee attended Monday's session for a discussion on potential funding sources to implement the district's education turnaround plan and facility improvements.

Lafayette Parish School Superintendent Pat Cooper proposed to the group that a 16-mill property tax that lapsed about six or more years ago could generate about $32 million for the turnaround plan.

Cooper previously had pitched a one-cent sales tax for facility needs, but on Monday told the group a half-cent sales tax would be sufficient to fund $275 million in facility needs that have been identified by principals.

The type of tax plan put before voters won't matter if the public doesn't trust the board, said Nathan Norris, a committee member and director of the Downtown Development Authority.

"The big issue that's in the room is going to be, ‘How do we meet the voter where they are? What are the trust issues?' " Norris said.

Trust was an issue in the board's last property tax proposal, committee member Joyce Linde said.

The School Board's efforts to fund $561 million in facility improvements failed in October 2011 when voters rejected a 23-mill property tax for school repairs and construction and a separate 2-mill property tax dedicated for maintenance.

Some committee members suggested conducting a public poll to gauge public support for the tax proposals.

Another committee member, Lynn Guidry, an architect who represents the city of Carencro on the committee, suggested the group could "speak more frankly" if the news media didn't attend the committee's meetings.

He asked the group facilitator, Brent Henley, a paid consultant, to explore whether the sessions were open to the public. The group was appointed by a public body - the Lafayette Parish School Board - and by state law, its meetings are open to the public.

The committee, which includes community members and school system employees, has met twice a month since March with a twofold purpose. The group is supposed to integrate the district's facilities needs with its educational turnaround plan and identify a way to pay for it.

Until now, the group's work has focused on learning about the district's financial situation and reviewing the school system's needs, from facilities to technology infrastructure.

At Monday's meeting, some committee members objected to a proposal that the district hire a professional to compare the district's facilities master plan and a campus-by-campus list of facility improvements that principals said are needed to boost their school's performance.

"I don't know if the timing is right on that. If we knew we were going for a tax this fall, it possibly will be, but I'm not convinced that we are," Guidry said.

Spending more money on a facilities review is "short-sighted," Guidry said.

The School Board paid $900,000 for a consulting firm to develop a facilities master plan, which was completed in 2010. The master plan identified $1.1 billion in facility repairs, improvements and construction needs.

A more recent facility need list, compiled by principals, totals about $275 million. The principals' list includes projects principals identified were needed to help them reach goals set in the turnaround plan, Cooper said.

Cooper told the group that the proposal to hire a professional to make the facilities comparison was not a staff recommendation and asked the group to consider the $275 million list developed by the principals.

"If we did that, we would get ourselves right up to where we need to be," Cooper said.

The committee took no action Monday.

The group's next meeting is at 6:30 p.m. May 20 at the Vermilion Conference Center, when potential partnerships with charter school organizations will be discussed.

Cooper told the group that two charter organizations are interested in building two new schools.

The committee plans to make prepare a final recommendation for a funding plan at its June 17 meeting.