HAMMOND — Tangipahoa Parish voters are being asked to consider new property taxes of 20 mills to upgrade school facilities and improve the quality and retention of teachers.
Three proposals on the Nov. 18 ballot would add $5.6 million in funding for teacher salaries and $5.6 million for school facility improvements annually. Early voting ends Saturday.
School officials pitched the tax proposals Monday as a needed step to improve the parish's schools, which are some of the least funded in the state, to about 100 people attending a luncheon hosted by the Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce.
"It's not that we're asking to get to the top of the pack, we're just trying to come up from the bottom where we are now as far as local funding," said Tangipahoa School Superintendent Mark Kolwe.
School Board member Brett Duncan said the tax proposals came out of the Vision 2020 Commission — a group of parents, teachers, school administrators and local stakeholders that formed in 2015 to develop a long-term plan for Tangipahoa schools.
The committee issued an emergency resolution in April that says many of the schools are "not suited for education in the 21st century" and need critical improvements to basic infrastructure, including sewerage and air conditioning.
The commission said at least $65 million in improvements are needed to bring the system's facilities to an acceptable level. Among the problems are the use of 130 temporary buildings. Also, some 90 percent of buildings are more than 25 years old, many of them not updated for modern teaching methods.
"The failure to have a recurring source of revenue dedicated to facilities has created a situation within the system where only the most urgent facility needs can be addressed, rather than a more strategic and efficient approach," the committee wrote.
The committee also found a crisis in teacher turnover.
The school district has lost more than 320 teachers per year for the past three years, according to an emergency resolution from May. From 2015 to 2016, some 194 teaching positions were filled with uncertified or substitute teachers, according to the resolution.
The commission attributed that problem to low pay and lack of support for teachers.
On the ballot are three separate tax proposals:
- Proposition 1 is a 10-mill property tax that would support a 5 percent raise for certified teachers and boost pay for support staff by at least $100 per month. The tax is expected to raise $5.65 million annually.
- Proposition 2 is a 4-mill property tax dedicated to school maintenance and construction. The tax would raise $2.26 million a year.
- Proposition 3 is a 6-mill property tax targeted at building improvements, with a goal of getting rid of temporary classrooms. It's expected to raise $3.38 million a year.
Duncan said the tax revenues from Propositions 2 and 3 would be split, with 55 percent of the total collected distributed on a per-student basis. The other 45 percent would be used to secure a $33 million bond for building improvements.
If all three taxes pass, homeowners taking a homestead exemption would pay $50 extra on a $100,000 house, $150 on a $150,000 house and $250 on a $200,000 house, according to numbers provided at Monday's presentation.
The taxes would also enable the parish to access to additional state funds, Duncan said.
Because the local population would be investing more per student, the parish would become eligible for an additional $6.5 million per year from the state's Minimum Foundation Program, Duncan said.
"That's money we're currently leaving in Baton Rouge, that we'll now be able to bring home with the passage of these millages," he said.
School system Student Assignment Plan Coordinator Maureen Terese said additional MFP money would be used to hire teaching coaches and mentors for the educators to help them get certified, as well as to add arts, computer and music curriculum.
The parish also has saved $13 million to spend on construction once thought to be needed to settle its nearly 50-year-old desegregation case. A judge in 2015 accepted an alternate plan that avoids new construction. If there is a new stream of recurring revenue, that saved money could be used for smaller building projects, Duncan said.
A federal judge has approved an alternative plan for desegregating Tangipahoa Parish schools that may save the district the expense of buildin…
Bret Schnadelbach, the school district's chief financial officer, said taxpayers in Tangipahoa pay relatively low school-related taxes. At $387 a year, Tangipahoa taxpayers pay the least amount of property taxes per student in the state, he said.
The average school-related property tax in the parish is 13.13 mills, compared to a state average of 41.15 mills, he said. The school district is also supported by a 2 cent sales tax.
The low property tax is reflected in low numbers for per-student spending.
Combined with the sales tax, students in Tangipahoa Parish are funded at $2,548 annually from local revenues, Schnadelbach said. That's the ninth lowest in the state. The new tax would bring local revenue to $3,134 per student per year, he said.
By comparison, local revenue adds up to $2,599 per student in Livingston, $5,758 in St. Tammany and $3,075 in St. Helena, he said.
Schnadelbach said the school district, which has 19,504 students, has struggled financially as state funding has lagged behind increased costs for employee retirement and healthcare in the past 10 years. He said the district, which has a $199 million budget, responded by cutting positions and raises and reducing starting salaries.
With the threat of having to build new elementary schools to solve the desegregation case no longer hanging over their heads, Duncan said after the presentation, the school board was able to move forward with this plan to improve the school system.
"We were really just kind of in a holding pattern for a long time," he said. "We now have the ability to look to the future, to refocus our attention on this new vision and to kind of take control of our school system back again."