Some Lafayette Parish School Board members hope voters who shot down a property tax proposal six years ago might be more receptive to a sales tax measure aimed at replacing the school system's more than 400 temporary classrooms with permanent space.
The board is set to vote Feb. 15 on whether to bring a tax proposal to Lafayette Parish voters in April after deciding first to pursue a property tax measure on Monday but then switching gears on Wednesday to favor a sales tax.
Yet to be determined are details on how much that tax would be and how long it would be collected.
The board is scheduled to meet next week to consider four scenarios for the Feb. 15 vote: a half-cent sales tax collected for 30 years, a half-cent sales tax collected for 35 years, a 5/8th-cent sales tax collected for 30 years and a 5/8-cent sales tax collected for 35 years.
The amount of revenue available for construction projects over 30 years under those various scenarios would range from $528 million up to $780 million, according to estimates from the school system.
The 15-mill property tax proposal the board had discussed on Monday but then abandoned later in the week would have funded a $623 million improvement plan under a shorter timeline.
Superintendent Donald Aguillard said the main goal of the tax proposal is to create new permanent classroom space and related facilities for the 20 percent of the parish's student population in temporary classrooms, mostly portable metal buildings.
Overall, the school system has more than 400 temporary classrooms, a number that has steadily grown over the decades as student enrollment has pushed far above the design capacity of schools.
At some schools the problem is acute.
Lafayette High School, designed for 1,481 students, now has an enrollment of 2,344, and Evangeline Elementary serves 611 students on a campus designed for 307, according to figures from the School Board.
"The problem did not crop up overnight," Aguillard said.
Aguillard said the old portable buildings are uncomfortable, force teachers to complete with noisy A/C units and the roar of rain on metal roofs, and leave students scrambling between classes in bad weather.
School officials have long talked about doing something about the situation and hired a consulting firm in 2009 to craft a comprehensive facilities improvement strategy.
The consultants returned with a $1 billion master plan.
"That's the deficit we are trying to close," Aguillard said.
The board floated a 25-mill property tax in 2011 to fund $561 million in school improvements.
Voters defeated it soundly, with 69 percent casting ballots against the tax measure.
The board had planned to return to voters last year with another property tax proposal but pulled it after concerns were raised about pushing a tax increase amid a weak oil economy.
The majority of the board has now agreed to at least consider moving forward with a new tax this year, but there has been much back on forth on what members think is palatable to voters.
The board on Monday voted to narrow the choices down to a property tax, only to come back Wednesday and scratch the property tax idea and vote 5-4 in favor of a sales tax.
Board member Justin Centanni, who originally voted to pursue a property tax but then switched his stance Wednesday, said he still favors a property tax, but his constituents, many of whom reached out to him last week, think otherwise.
"I think they were generally supportive of the idea that we need to replace some portable buildings, but they were far more supportive of a sales tax over a property tax," he said.
Board members Britt Latioalais and Mary Morrison both said at Wednesday's board meeting that they, too, have heard from community members who are more likely to back a sales tax.
"It's a tax they feel everyone pays a share of," Latiolais said.
The general argument in favor of a sales tax is that everyone pays it, whether they own property or not.
But a property tax, which is not subject to the same legal cap as sales tax, can bring in more money and the revenue is stable, as opposed to sales tax revenue that rise and fall sharply with the economy.
The shift in focus to the sales tax option last week left some board members uneasy.
Board member Erick Knezek said at Wednesday's meeting that raising sales tax in a parish where many municipal rates are already high could "cripple retail sales" and seems a bad choice when property tax rates for Lafayette Parish are among the lowest in the state.
He also said the board needs to think hard about the significant revenue needed to address facilities that have been neglected for years.
"This just isn't a $30 million dollar solution," he told fellow board members. "This is a several hundred million dollar solution."