Lafayette board members plan to get the word out soon on tax proposal _lowres

Advocate Photo by BRAD KEMP Lafayette Parish School Board District 9 member Jeremy Hidalgo, left, talks during a press conference Friday Dec. 11, 2016 at Comeaux High School in Lafayette, La. Hidalgo talked about the new school that will be built in Youngsville. Superintendent of schools Donald Aguillard was in attendance.

In early 2016, Lafayette Parish School Board members plan to start tax talks in the community to get the word out about how a proposed new 16 mills will fund school facilities and support educational initiatives.

Some board members have committed to district-by-district meetings with their constituents to explain how the tax will be used and finding community partners to help fund awareness campaigns about the tax.

The educational outreach will be much different than the grassroots effort in 2011 that saw little public involvement from the then-board, some board members have said.

“Unfortunately, I think some board members felt that if they stayed 10 feet away from it or farther that it was safer,” said Jeremy Hidalgo, a board member and chairman of the board’s facilities committee.

At its Dec. 2 meeting, the board approved a resolution setting an April 9 tax election with two propositions on the ballot. The first proposition involves an 11.5-mill property tax that will be used to issue general obligation bonds to fund priority construction projects.

The 11.5 mills would generate $380 million and the draft list of projects involves replacement of Lafayette High, Carencro Heights Elementary and L.J. Alleman Middle and expansions with more classroom space on high school campuses to eliminate portable buildings. Additional renovations to enhance school security are also planned, as well as other major improvements on campuses.

The board plans to finalize its list of priority projects for the $380 million in the coming weeks to allow time to provide the public with information about how the money will be spent.

Hidalgo said he has no plans to ask the public to vote one way or the other on the tax, but views the role of board members as one of educating the public about the school system’s needs, what the tax will fund and how much the millages will cost taxpayers.

He said he thought it “was a disservice to the community for those who did not work to provide information to the community” when a proposed school tax issue was on the ballot in 2011.

Board member Erick Knezek said some have questioned how improving a facility affects academic performance.

“A lot of these new facilities, like the new high school and the new Lafayette High School, will be technologically advanced,” he said in a Dec. 1 interview. “We’ll build facilities that make our students career-ready and ready to compete in the market.”

The second proposition on the ballot involves a 10-year, 2-mill tax to raise money each year for educational initiatives and a 10-year, 2.5-mill tax to generate annual funding dedicated to maintenance. The educational initiatives proposed for the 2-mill tax funding include an expansion of career training opportunities for students, early childhood education classes and technology upgrades.

About $600,000 could be generated to help offer more early childhood education opportunities to students, Superintendent Donald Aguillard said in a recent interview.

“We see two more early childhood centers being developed with $600,000,” Aguillard said. “We could have near universal pre-K programs in the district. The tax would also generate $1.1 million annually for technology so we could have a 1-to-1 ratio — kid per device — in the district.”

Board Vice President Dawn Morris has said the board will finalize the list of expenditures tied to the millages in the coming weeks.

Local public education advocacy groups say they’ll watch tax discussions closely and expect more details from the board on how the money will be spent.

Jay Jackson, chairman of the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council, noted that “a big chunk of the money” in the proposed tax plan is going toward facilities.

“We need capacity and to upgrade existing capacity, but overwhelming majority of the membership is concerned about what’s going on in the classroom,” Jackson said. “If we don’t get that right, then a nice building won’t make a difference.”

The projects that are part of the 11.5-mill proposition were among priority projects identified by consultants who developed a master facilities plan for the school system in 2010. That plan was the basis for a 23-mill tax that was rejected by voters in 2011.

Some tax opponents complained at the time there was no education plan to advance student achievement in the parish. Opposition also came from an anti-tax contingent, now identified as Geaux Free TPL (Tea Party Lafayette).

Community volunteers organized a group — Community Coalition for Lafayette Schools — to get the word out about the need for the 2011 tax and facility needs, but few board members attended the coalition’s forums to address questions or provide information about the tax.

The proposed 16 mills is a smaller bite than the 23 mills proposed in 2011 and may be more palatable to voters, board President Tommy Angelle said in a recent interview.

The School Board previously had a 15-mill property tax that it let roll off the books when it expired years ago, rather than renewing it, Angelle noted. In a way, the 16-mill is replacing what was already on the books, he said.

“The key is to say exactly what you’re going to do with the money and do it,” Angelle said. “I’m not criticizing the one in 2011, but I don’t know to what extent that was done. It’s important for the public to know exactly what will happen to the money.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.