LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board adopted a nearly $430 million budget Monday despite Superintendent Pat Cooper’s warnings that those who voted in support of the plan “are knowingly breaking the law.”
Cooper said the board’s version of the budget violates portions of a state law, known as Act 1, that gives school boards “only the right to determine the number of personnel to be hired but does not allow the board to pick those people or positions.”
For instance, the board eliminated the community collaborations and partnerships office at a savings of $218,558. The reduction includes the $83,759 salary of its director, Angela Morrison.
“The general fund budget adopted by this board does not meet the requirements of Act 1 and therefore cannot be certified by me or sent in to the Department of Education as a valid budget,” Cooper said.
He later said that until the board complies with Act 1 or a court rules, the district will continue to use the adopted 2013-14 budget.
And, as if fate were intervening, moments before the board was to vote on the budget, the electricity in the building went out, leaving the board room lit by computer monitors and a security light.
Applause erupted and one woman in the audience offered this explanation for the timing of the electronic blip: “God said no.” The real cause was likely the rainy weather.
The interruption to the technology didn’t stop the board from taking a voice vote and approving the budget on a 6-3 majority.
Voting in support of the overall $430 million budget were: Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion. Voting no were: Kermit Bouillion, Shelton Cobb and Mark Cockerham.
Most of the budget battles concerned the $265 million general fund budget, which the board cuts by nearly $6.3 million.
Earlier in the meeting, Cooper told the board it would be making a “big mistake” by adopting its version of the budget.
“If you pass this budget, you can’t say that you weren’t told that it was going to disproportionately harm those children who are most at risk,” Cooper said.
Before the board voted, retired Lafayette Parish schools nursing director Betty Alford defended board members who have supported the cuts.
“I have absolutely no objection to spending all the money we have to help poor students and I know it takes more money probably than we have, but for you to be threatened about breaking the law and not caring about the students on the northside of town is wrong,” Alford said.
To balance the $265 million general fund, the board used about $6.8 million of the $73.6 million in its rainy day account.
A majority of the board has been opposed to using large portions of the rainy day account because of board policy that requires it to maintain at least three months of operating expenses in reserve. Chief financial officer Billy Guidry told the board that only about $64.8 million is needed to meet the three-month operating reserve requirement, so a total $8.7 million in surplus was available for their use.
The board recommended about $6.3 million in cuts to the budget. It later restored a total of about $3 million — though $2.5 million of those restored funds require staff to make pitches to the board for separate approval for purchases of textbooks or other needs.
Student services director Beverly Breaux told the board it needs to quickly make a decision on how to use the $2.5 million.
“I cannot continue operations in my department with the budget approved tonight,” she said.
On Monday, the only restoration offered by the board was $368,000 for a last-chance program called AMIKids that is housed at Moss Preparatory Academy. The program started in 2013 with the support of the sheriff’s office, District Attorney’s Office and Lafayette Consolidated Government.
Guidry said so far, only the sheriff’s office has committed to fund $60,000 to help support the program’s implementation.
Awbrey pushed for the AMIKids program restoration and Trahan said she’d like to see the board approve the funding, but staff should continue to pursue funding commitments from the other two partners.
The board unanimously approved $308,000 — the program cost minus the $60,000 from the Sheriff’s Office.
The board’s action Monday means it met the state’s Sept. 15 deadline required for final budget adoption. The adopted budget must be presented to the Louisiana Department of Education by the end of the month to comply with state law.
Though Cooper asserted during the meeting that he wouldn’t submit the current adopted budget to the state department, board attorney Ken Sills said the board met its statutory obligations by adopting the budget Monday. Sills added that the law states that the board — not the superintendent — must submit the budget to the Louisiana Department of Education by Sept. 30. Sills said that while the budget is typically submitted with a cover letter from a school district’s superintendent, it’s not necessary.
The meeting ended what has been an unusual budget process that began in April. The board has met in nearly 20 sessions to offset a record shortfall of $23.5 million. In lieu of accepting proposed balanced budgets from Cooper over the past few months, the board opted to cull the budget to find ways to offset the shortfall on its own and wanted to move forward with its version of the budget weeks ago. However, Cooper had refused to advertise that version to the public, citing that some of the board’s proposed cuts violated board policies or either state or federal laws.
Board attorney Sills said an initial review didn’t reveal any legal concerns; however, the board may need to consider adjustments of the adopted budget to address some board policy issues.
At the start of Monday’s special meeting, Cooper presented the board an overview of its proposed $6.3 million in cuts, which he said will impact all schools, but primarily the district’s lower-performing schools.
Cajundome director Greg Davis told the board that the proposed cuts would cripple progress in the district. Davis filed a federal lawsuit last month asking the court to intervene in the board’s budget process. The case is still pending.
School board District 4 candidate Erica Williams urged the board to consider the impact of its decisions because students are still waiting on textbooks and staff members are unsure of the fate of their jobs.
“This budget issue is not just about numbers in a report. Real lives will be affected tonight,” she said.
Here are a few other expenses cut from the budget:
- $86,062 for materials, supplies and printing costs associated with universal screening for special learning needs.
- $104,406 for Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy expenses, including materials, supplies, contracted services and professional development.
- $60,230 for secretary salary, materials, professional development, supplies for guidance, testing, student records office.
- $479,543 for information technology for classrooms, mileage and cell phone re-imbursements for staff, and professional development.
- $105,000 for vehicle maintenance.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.