Despite finishing dead last in per-pupil revenue among Louisiana public school districts, Livingston Parish has clawed its way back into the top 10 in student performance.
Supervisor of instruction Joe Murphy presented to the School Board last week the results of student performances in public schools statewide, which were released by the Department of Education last month. The district shot up eight spots in the rankings since the 2012-2013 school year, placing ninth among the state’s 70 public school systems.
When asked about the leap in rankings, school leaders from the principal to superintendent repeated the same mantra:
“We’re doing more with less.”
Long considered a selling point for families to move to the parish, the Livingston school system has always been one of the state’s top performers. A decade ago, the parish was second in Louisiana but has since dropped as low as 17th before the past year’s rise. School Board members blame a carousel of changing standards.
“The state keeps changing the rules. … It seems like every time we do well, it changes and we have to regroup,” said Buddy Mincey Jr., board vice president.
One factor has remained constant, though: Despite above-average household incomes, the parish has held a perennial position near the bottom of the list measuring districts’ per-pupil revenue. In fiscal year 2013, Livingston schools generated $9,194 per student, $2,373 less than the state average.
The funding is reflected in class size, especially at the middle school level. Statewide, a little more than half of all middle and junior high school classes had 20 or fewer students in 2012, the most recent data available. In Livingston schools, 32 percent of middle and high school classes were as small. Forty percent of the parish’s middle school classes have between 27 and 33 students, twice the Louisiana rate.
“We just can’t hire that many teachers (to shrink class size),” Superintendent John Watson said.
Other items on the superintendent’s wish list include improving campus Internet speeds and placing a personal computer or tablet in each student’s hands.
Parish schools receive money from local, state and federal sources. In fiscal year 2013, Louisiana school districts generated a combined $3.5 billion from local sources. Together, they took in an equal amount in state revenue, mostly through the Minimum Foundation Program, which uses a formula to distribute money for education around Louisiana. In Livingston Parish, local funding does not keep pace with state funding.
Most of the district’s money comes from the state — nearly two-thirds of the school system’s total funds and 81 percent of its general fund in fiscal year 2013, according to state Department of Education statistics and the school budget.
Federal money that supports programs like free and reduced lunches accounted for about 9 percent of all funding in 2013.
The remaining 26 percent was raised through local millages and sales taxes. The low amount of local revenue for schools contributes to Livingston’s last-place finish in per-pupil funding.
In the bedroom communities of Livingston Parish, local taxes can be hard to come by.
“We just don’t have an industrial tax base,” Watson said.
Plants and factories elsewhere in the state such as those along the Mississippi River sit on plots that generate taxes for schools without directly adding to the number of students. Livingston has some manufacturers and timber companies, but much of the development is residential.
School leaders are excited about recent and proposed retailers locating along the interstate, hoping they’ll be able to draw more sales tax if consumers buy locally.
Growth also has meant that the School Board has had to use its funding to make sure campuses could support all the new students.
Between 2003 and 2013, enrollment rose approximately 25 percent to 25,293 students — or as Watson remembers, about one new school per year. Regular growth, rising numbers of commuters moving to the Baton Rouge suburbs and uprooted families who settled in the parish after Hurricane Katrina all contributed to the increase.
While the district still matriculates a few hundred extra students every year, the rate has shown signs of slowing recently, though a number of new subdivisions and apartment complexes are being developed around the parish.
Though facing the state’s lowest revenue, Livingston Parish School Board members are determined to compete with the other nine A-rated districts in Louisiana, even the ones that rake in twice as much per pupil.
“They’re pouring more money and more money into some of these districts … and the results aren’t showing,” said Malcolm Sibley, board president.
“We learned a long time ago — this parish and this board just do what’s best for the kids … no matter the money we get,” Sibley said.
The system is fighting on several fronts to continue improving. Schools have offered tutoring to low-performing students and are working to improve their curricula, Watson said. High schools have emphasized ACT prep courses, and the district led the state in ACT improvement last year, according to the superintendent.
Two years ago, the parish saw about 70 students earn a 3 or higher on an Advance Placement exam, which qualified them to earn course credits from many colleges and universities. Last summer, the school trained dozens of teachers to head AP classes, and the number of 3 scores swelled to about 300, Watson and Murphy said.
High ACT scores, improvement among low-achieving students and a large number of AP test-takers all net school districts a lot of points under the state’s grading system . Livingston Parish also is pursuing another avenue.
Early in the morning each school day, welding torches fire up, TV cameras start rolling and the smell of baking cookies waft across the campus at Walker High School. Hundreds of teenagers are enrolled in the school’s vocational and technical programs, whether they build remote-controlled underwater robots to learn about oil rig maintenance or oversee their principal’s finances at the on-campus branch of Neighbors Federal Credit Union.
Students who graduate with technical certifications earn schools 110 points, compared to 150 points bestowed on the school for each “college-ready” graduate with credentials such as AP credit, to Murphy’s frustration. The points are used by the state to calculate the school and the district’s grades.
“A lot of children don’t attend a four-year school and don’t want to,” yet they can make $60,000 a year as a welder as employers are “clamoring” for skilled workers, he said.
The school system is investing in more vocational and technical courses, and hopes those students will get equal consideration with college-bound students . In the past year, Walker High has begun several new pilot programs and plans to use a portion of upcoming bond money to expand its programs.
The “do more with less” ethos is prevalent at the school. Plumbing and HVAC students perform minor repairs around campus, Principal Jason St. Pierre said.
Students enrolled in the TV production classes shoot commercials for local businesses and sell ad time, the teens who tend the campus store also cater events, apprentice carpenters take work orders and aspiring welders have a number of student-made items for sale. Every dollar they earn goes toward buying new drill bits, microphones and other equipment for the programs, St. Pierre said.
At the parish level, Livingston schools will continue to try to make do and improve using the available funding, Watson said.
“We’ve had this forever. It’s what we do,” he said.