Some New Orleans schools to see per-pupil funding drop

Only a few months before their fiscal year ends, some of the city’s schools — whether they’ve budgeted for it or not — will be getting $181 less per student in local revenue, a cut of 4 percent.

Education officials blame the decrease on an unplanned influx of students in elementary and secondary schools. They also say that local revenue decreased because of higher-than-expected fees for pensions, legacy costs and the like.

State and local education officials are also debating the extent to which the state’s controversial voucher program is draining the cash pool by funneling money to private schools, an impact state education officials deny.

A limited voucher program has been operating for a few years in New Orleans. But enrollment in the program, dubbed Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence, was extended statewide in August.

In December, ruling on a lawsuit filed by two teacher unions and the Louisiana School Boards Association, a Baton Rouge judge declared the voucher program’s funding mechanism a violation of the state Constitution, which forbids using public money for private education. The Jindal administration appealed the ruling, and the two sides presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court in March. A ruling is pending.

Voucher opponents contend that the program diverts public dollars to private schools at the expense of local districts. But state Superintendent John White, commenting on the per-student funding shortfall in New Orleans, said it’s simply because there are more students in the system than planned.

To blame scholarships for the decrease, White said, “is patently incorrect, and has no basis in fact.”

All New Orleans public schools, charters included, receive the bulk of their operating funds from local school-tax revenues. The dollars are collected and dispensed by the Orleans Parish School Board, which remains the taxing and bonding authority for all parish public schools even though the board’s portfolio has been sharply reduced since Hurricane Katrina.

In July, the School Board begins awarding the schools per-pupil allocations on a monthly basis, using a projected amount based on the previous year’s enrollment. Student counts are taken Oct. 1 and again Feb. 1. In March, the state Department of Education adjusts the per-pupil amount for the coming year. The School Board balances its books using the new number and doles out increases or decreases to schools accordingly.

Though the per-pupil amount for the 2012-13 school year was projected to be $4,110 a child, an influx of 1,257 additional students, as well as an unexpected $1.7 million increase in fees for legacy costs, has cut the allocation to $3,929 per child this year, education department officials said.

“We’ve come to a pretty strong conclusion that it’s about growth and population,” White said.

Not all schools will have their funding cut, Orleans Parish School Board officials said. For example, if a school’s student count this year is drastically higher than last year’s count (last calculated on Feb. 1) the school board may owe them money, rather than the other way around.

But most schools that answer to the Orleans Parish School Board have been operating at capacity for the past few years and will likely be seeing decreases, Kathleen Padian, deputy superintendent of charter schools, said.

The Recovery School District, which operates the majority of city schools, will be similarly affected, spokeswoman Zoey Reed said Friday. The RSD, which answers directly to the state Department of Education, will adjust a school’s allocation based on changes in enrollment and revenue levels.

Per-pupil state allocations to schools in all 64 parishes are based on what’s called the Minimum Foundation Program. They are designed to increase if local revenues decrease, assuring, at least theoretically, that students in poorer parishes can receive an education comparable to what’s available in richer parishes. An increase of $244 per student that OPSB schools received for the 2012-13 school year was based on projected enrollments and revenue, not actual enrollments and revenue, Padian said.

Orleans School Board officials dispute White’s claim that the voucher program is not a factor in the per-student funding cut.

“In prior years, the scholarship [ i.e. voucher] students were all paid out of state revenues,” Orleans Parish School Board superintendent Stan Smith said. “This past year they were paid out of a combination of state and local revenues.” The state planned for the addition of scholarship students, but numbers exceeded projections.

Orleans Parish budgeted on the assumption that 2,250 students would leave public schools in order to attend private schools paid by voucher. The actual number rose to 2,440 students.

And the local share of average voucher costs also rose, from a projected $2,211 to an actual $2,739, according to an explainer released by school board officials. That money is taken off the top of per-pupil funding, leaving less in the coffers for public school students, Smith said.

White has long said that vouchers are not funded by local school board tax dollars, a practice outlawed by the state Constitution. But while the voucher program isn’t financed directly from district coffers, the state reduces its overall per-pupil payment to a district depending on how many students enroll in the voucher program. The effect is essentially the same as if the district paid for that program, the lawsuit plaintiffs contend.

The $181 per-student shortfall will be reclaimed from school budgets by withholding an equivalent amount from allocations in the closing months of the school year, said Padian, who called the impact potentially “devastating” to a school’s bottom line.

Seeking comment, The Lens reached out to a spokeswoman for the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools, several of whose members operate under the aegis of the parish School Board. The collaborative’s principals declined to be interviewed, publicist Cheron Brylski said, because they are still pondering so many unanswered questions.

Jonathan Bertsch, director of advocacy for KIPP New Orleans, a charter group of nine schools that has seen an aggregate drop of 70 students, said that the reduction in head count is compounded by the cut in local per-pupil allocations.

“We are currently making additional budget revisions to account for the decrease in local revenue,” Bertsch said in a statement.

This story was reported by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.