Nearly $1 million in sales tax revenue is needed to help cover the Lafayette Parish School Board’s legal bills and an increase in insurance liability claims related to bus accidents.
A budget revision request to use $422,077 from the 1965 sales tax fund and $515,872 from the 1988 sales tax fund are on the board’s Wednesday meeting agenda for introduction. It’s possible that no action will be taken until the board’s next meeting May 20.
The budget revision will cover $678,264 needed to pay for insurance liability claims and another $154,685 will cover legal costs associated with the insurance claims.
The board needs the remaining $105,000 to pay its attorneys hired as general counsel and for other legal matters not associated with insurance litigation. It’s the second time since January the board will have to shift money around in its budget to cover legal fees associated with its general counsel and legal advice needed from other firms hired as special counsel. Earlier this year, the board shifted $200,000 from its property tax fund to cover its legal fees.
The budget revisions come as the board prepares for difficult decisions on where to pinch expenses to fill in an estimated $16 million hole in the 2015-16 general fund. The board has its first budget meeting on the general fund at 5 p.m. May 12.
Interim superintendent Burnell LeJeune has proposed a $100,000 decrease in the school board’s legal expenses as one option to offset the 2015-16 shortfall.
Legal expenses increased in the past year for numerous reasons. While the board opted to hire general counsel in lieu of the free services provided by the District Attorney’s Office in March 2014, it also faced legal challenges over the way it handled its budget process last year. The board faced additional legal costs when it hired another attorney to investigate then-superintendent Pat Cooper and preside over his employment hearing in November. Ultimately, Cooper was fired by the then-board, and Cooper’s legal challenge of that board’s decision is still pending in state district court.
The 2014-15 budget approved by the then-board in September allocated $183,000 for legal services and $2.3 million for insurance administration expenses. More money is needed to cover insurance claims related to traffic accidents, said Ramona Bernard, the school system’s risk management director.
“The number of bus accidents has increased dramatically in the last two years and we have had some rather large injury claims that arose from those. We’ve settled some big claims,” Bernard said.
Bernard said she’s working with Transportation Director Damon Evans to analyze accident data and work on driver trainings in the summer and fall. In March, Evans briefed the school board on the current training drivers received and presented accident data. He told the board that school district officials were reviewing the data and planning driver trainings.
The number of overall accidents has increased in the past three years, with the number of chargeable accidents — those where the bus driver was cited or liable in the accident — is also on the rise.
In 2010-11, there was 48 accidents and 20 of those were identified as chargeable accidents. Over the two following school years, in 2013-14, there were 68 total accidents, 36 of those chargeable. During the current school year, 2014-15, there were 69 total accidents with 29 of those chargeable, according to data shared by Evans with the school board in March.
His presentation came days after bus driver John Harvey Bernard was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in a morning crash with elementary students on board.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.