Livingston — As developers rush into Livingston Parish to build new homes and industrial sites, civic and business leaders have been on a circuit, visiting ribbon-cuttings, holding news conferences and meeting with community groups to pitch residents a story of new growth and prosperity. But in the Livingston Parish School Board chambers, the outlook is less rosy.
“We’re at a place right now like this,” said member Jim Richardson, wrapping his fingers around his neck.
Member Kellee Hennessy recalled looking over planning and zoning updates and dropping her head into her hands.
“Where am I gonna put these kids?” she remembered thinking. “You can ask the principals. They’re strapped.”
The kindergarten through 12th-grade student population has grown 21 percent in the past decade and at just under 26,000 students in October. Seven new schools have opened since 2004.
The growth has tapered off recently, but it’s beginning to look like “it might take off again,” said Superintendent John Watson.
The parish population is estimated to have grown 5.5 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, second in growth only to Ascension Parish in the Baton Rouge area.
Home sales in February were up 15.7 percent over the previous year, according to the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service. The growth was twice as high as the increase in East Baton Rouge Parish.
School officials are eyeing sites for new schools, but the focus is on expanding existing campuses. To keep pace with growth and relieve pressure on crowded campuses, some districts recently have opened schools with a limited capacity and continued construction for new classrooms and amenities as classes are being held.
Such was the case with South Fork Elementary School in the school system’s fastest-growing area south of Walker. Local board member Jimmy Watson said his goal is to keep elementary schools to 600 students. South Walker Elementary had 780 in 2009. When South Fork opened the following year, it was able to take in about 300 children from the district, and the school has been expanding ever since — six new classrooms were built last year, with seven more in construction.
During Thursday’s meeting, the School Board approved the purchase of 4 acres of land near Live Oak High School, which opened in 2012 and has been buying land in the area since. Hennessy said the new land would be used for baseball and softball fields, as the teams currently play at a nearby park.
While students may have to attend class next to a construction site, board members said that by stretching out the construction, they also can spread out the cost. South Fork Elementary was bought with bonds repaid through existing sales taxes, Jimmy Watson said proudly.
That was a fairly unique situation, though. Most new schools require a new property tax on residents.
When Richardson ran for election last fall, he identified school crowding as the No. 1 problem in his district, which encompasses the southeast region of the parish around Springfield and French Settlement.
He’s got an 88-acre site, bought by his predecessor, and dreams of building a new Springfield High School. Springfield is a relatively small community with 361 students at the high school, and he estimates a new campus would cost about $12 million, though the final bill will depend on amenities like athletic facilities. A few million more could renovate the old campus for younger students. But he’d need to go to the voters for funding.
“We don’t have any money,” he said. “... I tell (my constituents,) ‘I can lead you to water, but I can’t make you drink.’ ”
Richardson wants to ensure the parishwide 10-year, 7-mill renewal for school maintenance passes before talking to the voters about a new tax. That vote will be next month, and while the millage has been in place since the 1950s, school leaders are feeling a bit concerned. Richardson said he’d be shocked if it failed, but he saw voters soundly defeat a schools tax in Zachary last month. And everyone in Livingston knows voters have recently defunded the parish health unit, a volunteer fire department and the sports complex where Live Oak High School teams play.
Despite above-average incomes in the parish, Livingston schools are relatively poor compared to others in the state. In fiscal year 2013, no school system in Louisiana raised less money per pupil. Livingston took in $9,194 for each student, $2,373 less than the state average, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.
John Watson has attributed the discrepancy in part to a lack of industrial sites. Interestingly, Louisiana Economic Development has announced two new industrial sites and a major expansion of another since December. But there’s a catch.
The projects are expected to bring 793 new jobs to Livingston Parish, as well as spinning off 732 new indirect jobs, plus construction work while the sites are built. The companies were offered incentive packages, and the schools may not get their full property taxes for the next decade.
“In some ways (the industrial development is) very beneficial. In some ways, it adds to our numbers (of students) and not a lot to our coffers,” John Watson said.
Parishwide, the school system’s general fund makes much more money from sales tax than property tax, and the superintendent hopes the loss of tax on those sites — none of which are big Mississippi River-side plants, he noted — will be counterbalanced by the taxes that come from workers buying new houses and goods. Millages are “a very important part of our income,” and the loss of funding from those industrial sites could sting in the short term, the superintendent said. However, he added the parish would “be better off in the long run” because of the developments.
By far, the largest source of income for the system’s general fund comes from the state’s Minimum Foundation Program, which allocates money to public schools based on a complex math equation.
For John Watson, the most important number is 2.75 percent — the annual increase in funding intended to cover rises in the cost of living. But the MFP rate was frozen in 2009 and for most years afterward. The Livingston superintendent said it cost his schools roughly $30 million to $32 million in the past six or seven years, as each time the rate was frozen, it compounded the loss from the missed raises before.
The MFP can’t be used for construction, but when the rates don’t keep pace with inflation, the school system has to make up the difference with local funding, John Watson explained. The consequences are especially pronounced for a growing system like Livingston’s, which must not only maintain its services but expand.
“It does affect us a good bit,” he said.
The matter of growth was of such concern that the School Board in October voted to send school officials to speak with parish leaders about including the schools in impact studies for new developments.
“Our schools have been the driving force for the parish, and we’re the last ones to find out (about proposed developments,” board Vice President Buddy Mincey Jr. said at the time.
While the parish doesn’t perform impact studies for the schools themselves, they now send monthly reports to let school leaders know where proposed developments are located so the school can estimate how many students might move in.
“The parish has done a good job of keeping us informed,” Mincey said.
Hennessy wants the parish to do more, such as introducing ordinances that would require developers to build subdivision roads where buses can safely turn around without driving on residents’ lawns, for which she said she has received complaints.
“I just think they should look at our situation. ... I don’t go to the meetings because sometimes I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall,” she said.
The superintendent said that now that school leaders are getting reports from parish planning and zoning, his transportation department is able to let them know when proposed roads aren’t bus-friendly.
“It’s been working pretty well,” he said.
Last week, the superintendent said he has been informed of 2,766 lots and apartments that had been approved and were in development. The number, however, refers only to land in unincorporated areas of the parish. There are more apartments and subdivisions on the way in the cities and towns.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s coming. ... Housing development is coming,” he said.
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