Tangipahoa School Board has balanced budget in sight

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board on Wednesday used a rededication of sales tax revenues, cuts to transportation services, elimination of a perfect attendance salary supplement and a one-time reduction in the board-mandated minimum fund balance to come within $1 million of a balanced budget for 2013-14.

The remaining $892,000 needed to prevent a projected $9.6 million deficit for next school year will come through personnel cuts and possibly other cost-saving measures.

Superintendent Mark Kolwe, after speaking with his staff and district principals, will present a list of positions recommended for elimination at the School Board’s next Personnel Committee meeting, the date for which has not been set.

The School Board, sitting Wednesday as a Finance Committee of the Whole, debated the options for more than three hours, engaging in sometimes-heated exchanges that exposed priority differences and regional disagreements.

The most-heated exchange came during a discussion of whether the district should reinstate step raises after a two-year freeze, at a cost of $1.165 million, or use that money to offset most of the $1.366 million in personnel cuts originally proposed by the superintendent.

“I cannot justify allowing step raises, when we’re already at the state average for salaries, but then saying we’re going to terminate positions,” board member Brett Duncan said, noting that his wife is a teacher and his stance would affect his own wallet.

Board member Rose Dominguez, who represents eastern Ponchatoula, said she wanted to keep those positions, “but why not give the rest of our 1,500 employees their raises just because Hammond didn’t support the millage?”

Voters in Hammond’s Consolidated School District No. 1 taxing district narrowly defeated a 15-mill property tax May 4 that would have generated $3.4 million annually to support magnet programs, including 68.5 positions in Hammond-area schools.

Also on May 4, voters parishwide agreed to rededicate an existing 1-cent sales tax to operational costs. Nearly $7 million of the rededicated revenues, which total $17.2 million annually, will be used to plug part of the school system’s budget gap. The move effectively allows Hammond’s magnet programs to continue despite the failure of the magnet tax.

“We, in good faith, asked our employees to help us rededicate that (sales tax) money, and I don’t think we should take that money and keep all these people and not give the 82 percent of our employees the step raises they’re owed,” Dominguez said.

Duncan, one of the Hammond-area board members, countered that Hammond accounts for half of the parish’s tax revenue and is the only community that has ever approved a tax for anything other than community-specific capital improvements.

The support of Hammond voters will be crucial to any future tax propositions, and gaining community buy-in through the magnet programs is key to that support, Duncan said.

Duncan’s motion to suspend step raises and reduce the number of positions to be eliminated was defeated on a 5-4 vote. Board members Al Link, Eric Dangerfield and Christina Cohea joined Duncan in voting in favor. Dominguez, Ann Smith, Gail Pittman-McDaniel, Sandra Bailey Simmons and Andy Anderson voted against.