Funding magnet schools in Hammond poses challenge

The long-term solution to funding Hammond’s magnet school programs may require going before a federal judge, the Louisiana State Bond Commission and ultimately back to the voters, a Tangipahoa Parish School Board member told a parents group Monday.

But School Board member Brett Duncan said short-term options aren’t much simpler.

Voters in the parish’s Consolidated School District No. 1 narrowly defeated on May 4 a proposed 15-mill property tax to fund magnet programs in Hammond’s public schools.

The programs, which cost about $3 million annually, had been funded through a 9-mill tax that expired in 2012. In addition, a federal grant that helped fund the magnet programs was not renewed.

Filling the gap in funding, even temporarily, will require difficult decisions, Duncan said Monday at a meeting of the newly formed parents group Hammond Magnet S.O.S., or Save Our Schools.

The school district faces a $9.3 million general fund deficit for 2013-14, with only $9.2 million remaining in reserves, Duncan said. School Board policy requires a minimum fund balance of 7 percent of expenditures, or about $9 million.

The board could waive its policy and drain its reserves, Duncan said, or it could shift the magnet costs to a parishwide 1-cent sales tax that voters agreed on May 4 to rededicate from construction and maintenance to operational costs.

The sales tax generates about $17.2 million per year and has $20 million in reserves, but that money was earmarked for use in building three new elementary schools as required under the district’s court-ordered desegregation plan, he said.

The district also could cut teaching positions tied to the magnet programs, but Duncan said that would weaken schools with enhanced course offerings that have attracted hundreds of new students.

Such cuts also could run afoul of the system’s desegregation plan, which relies on magnet programs to help voluntarily desegregate the schools, Duncan said.

Ultimately, the school district must seek federal court approval to modify the plan to avoid having to build the three new schools, Duncan said.

The School Board also should seek to change the boundaries of the taxing district, created in the 1980s, to align the boundaries with attendance zones, he said. Doing so would give any future tax proposition a better chance of succeeding at the polls, he said.