School task force sets modest agenda

A special state panel studying how Louisiana funds its public schools appears headed for a modest set of recommendations with only five meetings on the schedule.

“That really narrows our scope,” said Jay Guillot, chairman of the 21-member task force and a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

During the first meeting, officials of the Louisiana School Boards Association, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators pressed for a wider study, including a look at rising retirement costs and school building needs.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the legislation that sparked the review “is a little bit broader in scope” than where the task force appears headed, including just how much it costs to educate a child in Louisiana.

But Guillot and others said the panel does not have enough time to tackle those issues, especially amid the complexities of how the state spends $3.5 billion per year on public education.

“To me those are totally separate issues,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana and a member of the committee.

“Retirement is a statewide issue that involves every agency in state government,” Erwin added.

Topics that appear headed for BESE’s attention include:

How districts should spend an extra $69 million in school aid anticipated for the 2014-15 school year.

Changes in how the state aids 82,000 special education students.

Tweaks in how dollars are parceled to make the system more efficient and transparent.

Public schools receive about $8 billion per year, including $3.5 blllion from the state, $3.3 billion from local sources and $1.2 billion from the federal government.

Louisiana is ranked 25th nationally in spending per student, Guillot said.

The group held its first meeting on Sept. 4.

Sessions are scheduled for Sept. 23, Oct. 21, Nov. 21 and Dec. 13.

Confusion over exactly what topics will be studied stems in part from the fact that the review has gone through several government bodies.

The review was sparked by a resolution sponsored by state Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Dubberly.

It says that focus areas should include how components of the funding formula — it is called the Minimum Founation Program — are determined, equity and the financial burden facing local school systems.

Richard and others took that to mean a wide-ranging study that would include hot-button topics like rising retirement costs, how to address millions of dollars in school building needs and how to generate more dollars for public schools.

Instead, topics on the agenda now include more general themes, including state and local aid to public schools and how the dollars are allocated.

The final meeting in December is supposed to focus on changes that the task force will recommend to BESE, which then sends its funding request to the Legislature.

“It is time for us to decide if we are going to have a progressive system, a regressive system or just go flat,” Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said at the Sept. 4 gathering.

But other members of the the task force said the focus has to be on working within existing resources, not trying to drum up new dollars for public schools.

“You know we can’t be all things to all people,” Mike Milstead, principal at Ruston High School and a member of the panel, said in an interview. “Just not enough money.”

State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, agreed: “Not any additional funds.”

Earlier this year, the Legislature, ending a five-year freeze, approved $69 million in new state aid for public schools.

Prospects appear good that another $69 million increase will be part of the spending plan for the 2014-15 school year, which is basically the 2.75 percent increase that once was common before state budget problems.

How that new money should be used is one issue for the task force, said Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system and a veteran of the last sweeping overhaul of school aid funding in 1992.

Faulk said the $69 million would boost state spending per student by $106, to $3,901.

Whether school districts have to use half of the new money to raise teacher salaries, a previous requirement, is one of the issues that the task force needs to pursue, officials said.

The first meeting of the task force was dominated by talk of possible changes in how the state aids special education students.

The state spends $313 million per year for its special education population, and aid is based on the number of students.

State Superintendent of Education John White earlier this year proposed gradually spending the money based on a student’s disability, where and how the student is educated and academic performance.

“I certainly see this is an issue that will be addressed and discussed one way or another,” Erwin said.