Every time it rains, many Lafayette Parish school system students have to change into gym clothes because, with a lack of covered walkways to the district’s numerous temporary buildings, walking to class through downpours is just unavoidable.
School employees then take those wet clothes and wash and dry them for the students, while teachers shout lessons over the sound of water falling on the metal butler buildings — ones erected to temporarily house an exploding student population without any long-term solution on the books.
“We have to stop the madness,” Superintendent Don Aguillard said at a Monday forum on the district’s proposed tax measure, one created in an effort to alleviate a long-standing habit of allowing temporary fixes to become a way of life for the school system’s more than 30,000 students.
While those who participated in the forum agreed the district’s facilities are in dire need of improvement, many disagree on the necessity for a new property tax, even as uncertainty looms as to whether the 16-mill proposition will even make it on the ballot.
School officials, business representatives and the public discussed the proposed tax at Acadiana Press Club’s monthly meeting, held a day before the School Board will decide whether to move forward with the tax proposal. Tuesday marks the deadline for the board to rescind, if it so chooses, its Dec. 2 action to place the two-part tax proposition on the April 9 ballot.
Supporters of the proposed tax, which would fund a long list of construction projects and education initiatives, say the school system’s needs have been neglected for far too long.
“We can’t really ignore the state of the facilities anymore,” said Kathleen Schott Espinoza, who supports the tax proposal and represents Power of Public Education Lafayette, an education advocacy group.
“It’s never going to be a good time. So we need to look into the future,” Espinoza said.
The district has identified $380 million in needs that would be funded by the 11.5-mill tax, including replacing Lafayette High, Carencro Heights and L.J. Alleman and building the second phases of a new high school in south Lafayette and a new Katharine Drexel.
Portable buildings would be replaced and new classrooms added to Broussard Middle, Plantation, Evangeline and L. Leo Judice, while the W.D. and Mary Baker Smith Career Center would receive upgraded equipment.
All middle and high schools would be renovated, all gyms would be air-conditioned and school buildings across the district would receive part of a $20 million security package.
The second part of the tax would fund, for 10 years, maintenance, technology upgrades and academic programming, including an expanded pre-K program.
Aguillard, who’s held the superintendent post since May, said he’s been passionate about the measure since realizing how past administrations and boards had neglected to address the growing student population with permanent fixes.
Aguillard said hallways and cafeterias at several schools are now undersized for the growing student population, technology is lacking parishwide, and facilities for career and technical education are too aged to best serve students, some of whom need to be career-ready upon graduation.
District 9 board member Jeremy Hidalgo — who recalled attending classes at Milton Elementary School in the early ’90s inside buildings that even then were considered aged — said the proposition amounts to a 16-mill property tax that was used to build the district’s last new high school in 1969 but “fell off the books.”
Asked whether the district had considered a short-term tax like the eight-month, half-cent sales tax voters approved to fund additions to the Lafayette Regional Airport, Hidalgo said the model is not feasible for school projects.
“It would take us over three years to collect enough money to rebuild Lafayette High,” Hidalgo said.
But opponents argue that proposing new taxes amid an economic downturn would be yet another blow to an energy-dependent area already suffering from the downward spiral in oil prices.
“The burden is going to be on businesses, and the more you impact those businesses, the less jobs you’re going to have,” said Lafayette businesswoman Carol Ross, who spoke in opposition to the tax.
Five of the top 10 taxpayers in Lafayette Parish are energy businesses that have laid off thousands of workers over the last year, including Frank’s, Halliburton and Schlumberger, according to the Lafayette Parish Assessor’s Office.
Homeowners, a large number of whom rely on the energy industry for their livelihoods, would also pay more annually. Those with a home valued at $230,000 and who qualify for a homestead exemption would pay an estimated $248 more in property taxes each year.
Aguillard spoke to the legitimate concern that money derived from potential new taxes could someday be used beyond the intended purpose, as a 2002 half-cent sales tax created to boost teacher salaries later started going to support staff, too.
Aguillard said the language of the current proposition has been worded so tightly that it couldn’t be used even to foot the bill of a serious natural disaster.
Still, Ross said she would rather see the board and superintendent choose one or two projects of the several identified, complete them and then revisit the tax idea.
“Let’s rebuild the trust of the community and move forward from there,” Ross said.
Area business associations, meanwhile, have declined to take a stance on the proposed tax.
Jan Swift, executive director of the Upper Lafayette Economic Development Foundation, said the organization voted Monday to take no position on the tax proposal because of the uncertain energy economy, but she said the group is “very much aware the school system needs our support.”
André Breaux, One Acadiana’s director of policy initiatives, also attended the Monday forum.
He said the nine-parish economic development agency is “positive about the direction the School Board is going” but not so much about the economy.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.