St. Mary Parish School Board members last week decided to close two schools, a cost-cutting measure to address a yawning funding gap from falling tax revenues and a yearslong exodus of students that grew worse as the economy soured over the last two years.
With two 7-4 votes, the board on Monday decided to close J.A. Hernandez Elementary in Franklin and M.D. Shannon Elementary in Morgan City, decisions projected to save the school district about $3.6 million annually.
The closures — school officials describe the moves as consolidations — will save the district about $3.6 million annually. Pupils from J.A. Hernandez will attend nearby Foster Elementary or LaGrange Elementary in Franklin; in Morgan City, pupils from M.D. Shannon in Morgan City will attend either Wyandotte Elementary or M.E. Norman Elementary.
No layoffs of teachers or other staff are anticipated, officials said, because jobs should be available at other schools due to attrition.
The votes that finalized the deal last week were made at an emotional board meeting on March 21 before a packed board room in Centerville.
“Nobody wants to see schools close,” School Board President Ginger Griffin said Friday. “I think every board member knew that consolidation was necessary. It’s just that nobody wants it to be their school.”
Officials are bracing for a $4 million to $8 million shortfall in the 2016-17 school year budget, Superintendent Leonard Armato said.
Armato said the wide spread between $4 million to $8 million shortfall reflects uncertainty over how the state will fund K-12 schools. Though traditionally left alone, K-12 funding by state government could see cuts this year as cash-strapped Louisiana tries to shore up its budget.
“Right now, there’s a lot of question marks out there as to how the state’s going to fund things,” Armato said.
St. Mary Parish accountants and other officials also have watched as sales tax revenues have fallen dramatically, starting in late 2014 as the price of oil dropped from its above-$100 heights. Some months saw 15 percent to 20 percent or more drops in parish sales tax revenue compared with year-before figures: Parish businesses and residents, heavily involved in the energy industry, have made less and spent less, and local governments have felt it, including the School Board.
Armato said the state of the economy has hastened the school system’s loss of students as many families moved to find work elsewhere. That out-migration has led to a smaller student population, on which the state bases its payouts to parishes through with a process called the Minimum Foundation Program .
Armato said since October 2014, school enrollment has fallen by 263 students. The loss of that many students worked out to about $850,000 less in MFP funds directed to St. Mary Parish. It could be more if lawmakers decide to tweak the MFP payouts to help balance the budget.
“That’s a dramatic hit,” Armato said.
The loss of students in St. Mary Parish is nothing new. Armato said enrollment in the district has declined each of the past 10 years, even during the energy sector boom.
“We were still losing some students then but not as many as now,” he said.
Through the years, as enrollment dwindled, board members often discussed closing some facilities because they were not needed, said Griffin, the board president. However, they never took action until they were well into an economic downturn and had to stare at the cold, hard deficit numbers.
“It’s a hard decision to make when times are good,” she said. “It’s a hard decision to make when times are tough.”
The schools chosen for closure were not everybody’s choice.
William McCarty, a School Board member in Morgan City, said there was no discussion about which schools in his city should be closed, only a recommendation by a consultant, then a yea or nay vote.
McCarty said he opposes shutting down M.D. Shannon — a grand, multistory building built in 1922 as Morgan City High School — and would have lobbied to close M.E. Norman if he’d been given the chance.
“I got a ton of phone calls (from constituents),” he said. “There were a lot more people positive for Shannon.”
Armato, the superintendent in his first year on the job, said closing Shannon and Hernandez disrupted the fewest number of pupils and parents.
And the choices made the most economic sense: minimal building preparation and no renovations.
“We had enough capacity to accept those kids in classes without having to spend a large amount of money,” Armato said.