West Feliciana board freezes teacher pay, makes other cuts

A $1.5 million budget shortfall forced the West Feliciana Parish School Board on Tuesday night to freeze teacher salaries, cut administrative pay and propose a retirement incentive program.

Retirement funding costs have skyrocketed in the past four years, jumping more than 50 percent and weighing down the School Board’s available funds, according to figures provided by the board’s secretary and finance manager, Ruthie Davis.

“I do not think we get out of this deficit without a reduction in force,” said Superintendent Hollis Milton, who will join other administrators in taking a pay cut. “We’re deeply saddened that we’re going to lose some good teachers.”

The School Board expects to pay out more than $4 million to state retirement programs next year, which would represent a roughly 35 percent overall spike compared to four years ago.

The state once funded the School Board’s retirement, transportation and health insurance costs, but it no longer does, Davis said.

“It’s breaking school districts,” Davis said of the state-mandated increases to retirement contributions.

In addition to the retirement cost burden, the school district is also dealing with a shrinking student population. Because the School Board receives a certain amount of money per student through the state’s Minimum Foundation Program, when enrollment drops, so does funding.

The school district’s enrollment has declined by about 90 students in the last few years, representing a loss of about $450,000 per year in state funding.

In spite of record-high school evaluation marks, the school district faces difficult budget-related decisions that could lead to layoffs, Milton said.

Other matters coming before the board included:

RETIREMENT INCENTIVE: When Tunica Elementary School closed two years ago, the School Board offered teachers a $10,000 stipend to retire. Only two teachers already set to retire accepted, so the program wasn’t cost-effective enough to implement.

The School Board proposed a similar program Tuesday, although the stipend amount has dropped to $5,000.

Davis said that if between 15 and 18 teachers were to accept the offer, the program could save the School Board almost $500,000 in salary expenses.

School Board member Amanda McKinney said that challenges posed by increasing standards and implementing new curriculums might push teachers to accept the proposal this time around.