After months of debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board unanimously approved Monday a $413 million general operating budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year that contains roughly $33 million in cuts and other spending reductions.
Only one of those cuts, the elimination of positions for 16 bus drivers and their routes, which served buses with 30 or fewer gifted students, was in any danger of being reversed Monday, but supporters fell short.
Instead, many of those students will have to get to school via the school system’s transfer point, meaning a much longer trip to school and a longer school day.
“They sealed their fate,” said parent Craig Harvey after the meeting. “We’re going to create a separate south Baton Rouge school district.”
Harvey, who is an LSU associate professor in industrial engineering, told the board the decision is already prompting families, including his own, to consider moving out of Baton Rouge to suburban school districts.
“No system is perfect, but this one is really broken and it’s time we fixed it,” he said.
Board member Jill Dyason urged the board to hold off on the cut, which will save an estimated $850,000, until a newly formed transportation task force can meet and come up with alternative ways of saving money.
Dyason also suggested some $250,000 in alternative cuts: freezing some vacant positions and eliminating some arts funding, including purchases of band equipment and $2,000 for a trip to a national conference by the school system’s director of transportation.
Board member Connie Bernard, whose own son may be affected by the change in bus routes, suggested other cuts, including not funding some mental health services for children. Bernard suggested the money for the services could be raised privately.
None of those ideas, however, gained any traction with fellow board members.
Dyason ended up proposing a compromise. She suggested that $250,000 worth of new savings that Superintendent John Dilworth recently identified could be diverted to pay for more direct bus routes for gifted students. She said it won’t help families just entering the gifted program.
“Now I’m just trying to help our own,” she said.
Dyason’s motion, however, failed in a 5-6 vote. Voting for Dyason’s amendment were board members Bernard, Dyason, Barbara Freiberg, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware Jackson.
Board member Craig Freeman, who often votes with those five, however, wouldn’t go along. He said there’s a bus in his neighborhood that transports just six children.
“We can no longer afford to have buses with so few children on board,” Freeman said.
Freeman also noted that thousands of children who attend magnet programs already use the transfer point and have long bus rides.
Freeman, however, said he still holds out hope that the superintendent can find ways between now and the Aug. 10 start of the 2011-12 school year to minimize the pain.
Dilworth expressed similar sentiments, saying last year he ended up hiring 23 more bus drivers than originally planned in order to shorten long bus rides.
“Give us an opportunity to see what happens when school is open to make some common sense decisions for the good of children,” Dilworth said.
The budget calls for spending $413 million in 2011-12, which begins July 1. The school system, however, is anticipating receiving only $389 million in revenue to pay for that spending.
It will be the fourth year in a row that the school system is spending more money than it’s taking in. The $24 million gap, though, is smaller thanks to a proposed 2 percent increase in revenue and a 2 percent decrease in spending.
To cover the difference, the budget draws from the system’s unassigned reserves, depleting that pool.
The general operating budget is one of dozens of budgets that the School Board approves each year, but it’s by far the biggest, representing about three quarters of the school system’s spending. It’s also where the school system goes to when it wants to spend money on things it has not already budgeted for.
The financial picture doesn’t get any better in the future.
Besides cuts approved Monday for 2011-12, the school system is estimating the need for further cuts of $34 million, $12 million and $9 million for the next three fiscal years.
School officials blame declining local tax collections, flat state education funding, cost-shifting by the state to local school districts, increasing costs for salaries and benefits, and diversion of money to charter schools for the financial problems.