The Lafayette Parish School Board began its Tuesday meeting with a proposed $266 million budget that was balanced, but slowly began restoring $800,000 in eliminated positions without identifying other cuts or committing to using funds built up from prior years.
Staff began the budget process with an estimated $16 million shortfall that was balanced in part by increasing class size at some schools for a savings of $4.2 million and dipping into its rainy day account for another $4 million.
Even by using $4 million in its reserves, the board still has enough money in its fund balance to cover three months of expenses — $66 million — and still have about $4 million leftover that isn’t dedicated for other expenses, said Billy Guidry, the school system’s chief financial officer.
Part of the shortfall was due to an estimated $5 million reduction in state funding the school system receives based on its student enrollment. The school district doesn’t expect an annual increase in state per-pupil funding this year and it also faces a loss of students who enroll in three charter schools that opened in the 2014-15 school year and are expanding in the parish, Guidry said.
Tuesday’s meeting began the general fund budget review process. The board’s next meeting to continue general fund discussions is scheduled May 19. If there are no delays, the board could give its final approval to the spending plan by June 17, ahead of the end of the fiscal year on June 30. Prior to its final approval, the public will have a chance to inspect the budget and a public hearing will be scheduled.
As it reviewed proposed cuts, some board members lobbied to restore some expenses, citing relevance for students’ experience in the classroom.
Board member Erick Knezek asked for a restoration of a proposed $313,146 reduction in contracted services that would eliminate arts, music and museum programs offered by the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Acadiana Symphony Orchestra and the Natural History Museum.
Incoming superintendent Donald Aguillard told the board that funding support had been identified for at least one of the programs offered by the Acadiana Center for the Arts that partners artists with classroom teachers. He said the AcA committed to funding a third of the program’s cost and another third could be covered by federal Title I funds.
“We’re pulling all of our dollars together and providing funding for all of our children,” Aguillard told the board.
The board unanimously approved restoring the funding for the student arts and museum programs.
Other restorations approved Tuesday involved positions ranging from $69,478 for a crisis intervention teacher to $240,000 for three social worker positions. In addition, the board also restored $167,500 for five licensed practical nurse positions.
The vote to restore the crisis intervention teacher position was 7-1, with board president Tommy Angelle voting against while finance committee chairman Justin Centanni abstained. Voting in support were Elroy Broussard, Britt Latiolais, Dawn Morris, Knezek, Mary Morrison, Jeremy Hidalgo and Tehmi Chassion.
When Hidalgo asked the board to restore three of seven social worker positions, Centanni and Morris proposed that the board ask staff to return with a revised staffing recommendation.
“Staff has spent several months coming up with this list and trying to balance the value of each position” with the needs in the classroom, Centanni said. “I don’t necessarily feel comfortable just doing this.”
The cut to social workers would be detrimental to student services, Hidalgo said.
“These are positions that while they’re not classroom teachers and don’t have a roster, they do make a huge impact and see students on a daily basis and make an impact on students’ lives,” Hidalgo said.
Aguillard encouraged the board to consider that staff worked hard to deliver a balanced budget and also identified more than $2 million to restore annual salary increases for all employees that initially wasn’t going to make it into the budget. Rather than ask staff to find additional cuts, the board should consider whether they’re willing to use more of its rainy day fund to restore proposed cuts.
“Am I to come back with more cuts to teachers? More cuts to assistant principals? More cuts to guidance counselors?” he asked the board.
Initially, Hidalgo had proposed that the board pay for the restoration from its rainy day fund, but Chassion made a substitute motion without a dedicated funding source. The board voted 5-4 to restore the three social worker positions with Centanni, Latiolais, Morris and Angelle voting against it.
Chassion later proposed reinstating five licensed practical nurse positions without a specified funding source for the $167,500 expense and that recommendation was approved in a 6-3 vote. Knezek, Centanni and Angelle voted against the restoration.
Later, Centanni proposed cutting the board’s budget by about $60,000 to curb board travel and its dues for state and national school board associations. Centanni said the board’s travel budget should retain enough money for Angelle, as board president, to represent the school board at conventions.
“In these kinds of times that we’re going through, I don’t know if this is a luxury we can afford,” Centanni said. “If we’re going to ask our employees to bear the cost of these cuts, I think we should bear a little bit ourselves.”
“It doesn’t preclude any of us from attending on our own dime,” Morris said.
Aguillard noted that board members don’t have to be members of the state or national associations to attend the conferences. He said most districts pay dues to the state association in order to have the benefit of the legal expertise of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins and Guice, which the Lafayette board already has access to because the law firm is its legal counsel.
Angelle, Morrison and Broussard voted against the reduction to board travel and membership dues. Angelle and Morrison spoke in support of the professional development and networking opportunities the conferences provide board members, especially since the majority of members are serving their first term on the board.
An additional $313,000 in savings can be attributed to a reorganization plan proposed by Aguillard, though he’ll present those details to the board at its May 20 meeting.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.