Inside Report: Lafayette board prolonging power play

The Lafayette Parish School System is about a month away from the first day of school and the district is still searching for teachers.

Headhunting for classroom teachers typically continues through the summer, but what’s odd about this staffing season is that the hunters don’t know yet exactly how many heads they need.

The school district is holding off hiring about 44 teachers — about one teaching slot per school — until the School Board makes a final decision about the budget, said Bruce Leininger, school system human resources director.

Based on enrollment projections, the district is overstaffed by 44 classroom teachers and seven assistant principals, so those positions have been cut from the district’s $256 million general fund.

While the eliminated positions help balance the budget — without dipping into the district’s rainy day fund — board members have said they don’t want to make cuts that could impact students. Through attrition, the reduction in teacher slots doesn’t equate to current employees losing jobs, but for assistant principals, it could mean a return to the classroom or other positions in the district.

Meanwhile, students return to school on Aug. 14 and hiring has continued, though at a slow pace.

The school system employs about 2,300 classroom teachers. When school ended in May, the district had about 190 positions to fill due to resignations and retirements, Leininger said.

“We’re making progress,” Leininger said. “We’re working with principals and working on getting them up to the staff level we need.”

One area where a job is guaranteed — math.

“We’re having a hard time finding enough math teachers,” Leininger said. “That’s always a challenge, but we’ll find them.”

The district began the current fiscal year on July 1 without an approved budget. Twice now, the board has pushed back scheduled meetings for final budget adoption to review proposals and to review its own prior decisions.

Most recently, the board deferred a scheduled July 17 final adoption meeting to schedule another review session on July 18. Board members said they didn’t want to hold a public hearing on the budget knowing that additional changes are likely concerning the elimination of a number of teacher and administrative positions.

While this isn’t the first time the board has started a new spending year without an approved budget, this has been the slowest budget decision-making process compared to recent years.

It’s also the first budget process since a state law called Act 1 took effect, shaking up teacher pay and job protection laws, superintendent evaluations and shifting the hiring and firing authority long held by school boards into the hands of superintendents. The changes wrought by the law, which remains under judicial review, have been nothing short of controversial.

Meanwhile, school boards have no final word over personnel decisions, but they do retain their power over district spending.

And in Lafayette, the school board is prolonging its power play.

Marsha Sills covers education in Acadiana for The Advocate. She can be reached at msills@theadvocate.com.