LAFAYETTE — In May 2010, the School Board received a master plan that laid out a map and timeline to rebuild and repair its overgrown and underfunded facilities.
Now, on Oct. 22, the public will decide whether to support a 23-mill property tax to pay for a $561 million construction program. The proposition also includes a separate 2-mill property tax dedicated to maintenance.
Supporters of the tax have called a vote against the tax a vote against the parish’s children.
Tax opponents say the increase is too much, too soon, and the School Board should have better maintained schools.
“No new taxes. No new schools,” summarized School Board president Mark Allen Babineaux during the board’s Wednesday meeting.
“The reasons to vote for the tax have been standing in Lafayette Parish — some of them for 80 years,” Babineaux said during the meeting. “Reasons are holding physics and chemistry class in the home economics department in some schools, having orchestra in the lunchroom … Panini on one side and Paganini on the other.”
The School System has provided online resources for voters to make up their own minds about the tax.
And on Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., schools are open for tours so voters can see what the issues are with their own eyes.
Property taxes for Lafayette Parish are now at 84.36 mills for most residents and 85.89 mills for those who live in unincorporated areas of the parish or in Broussard.
The new property tax increase equates to about a 29 percent increase in property taxes, not 75 percent, Babineaux said. He dismissed the higher figure as misinformation circulating about the tax.
Currently, about 33 mills is directed to the school system. The additional 25 mills does equate to a 75 percent increase in property taxes directed to the school system.
Property taxes haven’t been increased since 2003 after voters approved a new millage to fund new libraries and the renovation of the downtown library branch, said Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux.
It’s the first time in about 30 years that the School Board has brought a millage dedicated to a bond issue. That was for asbestos removal in schools and the debt service was paid in 2008.
But it’s not the first time that voters have been asked to help fund a major construction program.
During the oil bust in the ’80s, the economy suffered, and facilities in the parish bore the brunt of it. Funds were directed to instruction in the classroom rather than the infrastructure that supports it.
In the early ’90s, a master facilities plan was developed. A separate sales tax to fund improvements went before voters in 1993 and failed, recalled former School Board member Mike Hefner.
“When that referendum failed we still used the report to tackle those projects we could afford,” said Hefner, who served on the board from 1990 to 2010.
Hefner said some progress was made until the board began focusing on smaller class size and capital improvement funds, and sales tax revenues were directed to the initiative to fund portable buildings and pay for extra teachers.
“The deferred maintenance cycle from the 1980s started all over again,” he said.
The School Board increased its general fund dollars for building maintenance from $3.9 million in 2005-06 to $5.8 million last year, said Billy Guidry, district chief financial officer.
Guidry added that in the past few years, the board has also directed excess sales tax revenues into a capital maintenance fund to address major repair needs. The additional funding has averaged about $6 million a year, he said.
The district’s goal is to bump up both accounts to $8 million in line with a recommendation by its master planning firm, CSRS Inc, Guidry said.
Past board decisions have contributed to the Tea Party of Lafayette’s opposition to the property tax proposal, said Joyce Linde, the group’s coordinator.
She referenced photos of poor school conditions shown during a recent property tax forum organized by School Board member Hunter Beasley.
“If those slides demonstrate what the schools are like, then they have not been properly maintained,” Linde said. “…I believe they voted against the children by not maintaining these buildings properly.”
Linde also said the group opposes the tax because of the current economy.
“We feel that overall, it’s too much,” she said of the increase. “The economic times are just too hard.”
The work should begin on a smaller scale, Linde said. The School Board should first demonstrate it can handle the maintenance and money properly before seeking new taxes.
The League of Women Voters of Lafayette and the Lafayette Democratic Executive Committee have endorsed the plan.
The tax also has the grassroots support of the Community Coalition for Lafayette Schools, a group of parents, teachers and retired teachers that organized in 2008 to push for a master plan to fix schools.
The tax increase doesn’t place Lafayette “over the top” of other parishes when it comes to property tax, said Sarah Walker, chairwoman of the Community Coalition for Lafayette Schools.
“We’ll still be under St. Tammany, which we’re always compared to,” Walker said. “They collect 78 mills for their school system and we’ll be at 58.”
A Lafayette resident with a home valued at $150,000 would pay roughly $187.50 more in property taxes each year, according to Walker’s group.
The district has started whittling down repair projects identified as priority needs in the master plan with allocations from a federal stimulus program — the Qualified School Construction Bond program.
To date, the district has been allocated $20 million through the bond program, but that doesn’t “even scratch the surface of what needs to be done in this district,” said Lawrence Lilly, deputy superintendent of operations and human resources.
Currently, the district has a “reactive budget,” Lilly said.
“We keep the doors open and prioritize what needs to be done. The frightening thing is you never know when a large-ticket item is going to break and swipe up money in your maintenance budget,” he said.
“Our band-aids are getting bigger, but they’re not lasting as long because our facilities are so old,” Walker said.