A $5,000 pay increase for teachers in Pointe Coupee Parish hinges on just one thing: persuading voters to approve a 10-year, 10-mill property tax proposition on the April 9 ballot.
Even though teachers in Pointe Coupee are among the lowest paid in the Baton Rouge region, the proposal is a hurdle some say will be hard to clear in a parish that’s particularly tax averse.
Schools Superintendent Kevin Lemoine said the proposed tax is the only way the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board will be able to give its educators the pay raise they’ve been promised. If approved, the tax also would generate additional revenue to upgrade facilities and give the district’s support staff a $2,250 bump in pay.
Voters shot down previous attempts to pass parishwide property taxes in the past decade for schools and the Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff’s Office, and opposition to the proposed school tax already is forming.
Scott Allen, a former parish teacher who lives in Livonia, said he and everyone else in his family plan to vote against the proposed tax.
“Until the School Board can prove they’ll be financially responsible, I’m not going to trust they’ll use the money like they say they will,” Allen said
The Rev. Carl Terrance, a member of Concerned Citizens for Pointe Coupee Parish, a community organization made up mostly of black residents, said he sees little support for the tax.
“We have decided we will not support the tax, and a majority of the folks I’ve talked to said they won’t support it,” Terrance said. “When are we going to do something to educate children? How are you going to bring this school system together? These are the conversations we want to hear.”
However, NRG Energy Inc. in New Roads, one of the parish’s largest taxpayers from the business community, is supporting the tax proposal even though it will see its $5 million annual tax bill increase by $1 million.
“We have been very encouraged by Superintendent Kevin Lemoine’s outreach on his vision for Pointe Coupee Parish as well as the plan to increase pay for Pointe Coupee Parish teachers,” Jennifer Vosburg, NRG’s senior vice president, said in a statement. “While NRG is continuing to review its overall tax implications, including actions underway at the state Legislature, we remain a strong supporter of our schools and teachers in Pointe Coupee Parish.”
Teachers in Pointe Coupee first approached the School Board last year about pay increases, noting the school system is losing large numbers of teachers annually to nearby districts that pay better.
Beginning teachers in Pointe Coupee Parish with no experience and a bachelor’s degree make $38,392 a year, well below what other parishes pay their first-year teachers — $47,024 in Iberville; $42,733 in West Baton Rouge; $44,972 in West Feliciana; and $44,500 in East Baton Rouge.
Only two school districts in Louisiana pay beginning teachers less than Pointe Coupee — St. Landry and Avoyelles parishes, where teachers earn $38,000 and $36,160 a year, respectively.
Pointe Coupee residents enjoy the second-lowest property tax millage rate — 54.1 mills — among Louisiana’s 64 parishes, based on a 2015 report issued by the Louisiana Tax Commission.
The school system’s 16.5-mill portion of the existing tax generates about $7 million a year, according to data from the Parish Assessor’s Office. The school system gets an additional $250,000 a year from 5.18 mills levied separately just on property owners living in the Livonia area through the 10th Ward school district tax.
The School Board’s 10-mill tax proposal, expected to generate an additional $4.5 million annually, includes language that would retire the 10th Ward tax should voters approve the new tax April 9.
Melanie Bueche, a member of the Pointe Coupee Parish Police Jury, called the School Board’s tax proposal a “daring move.” Daring, she said, because voters in the parish aren’t keen on new taxes — which is why the Police Jury hasn’t tried to pass a new property tax in nearly 30 years.
“Pointe Coupee is not very supportive of new taxes — or taxes, period,” Bueche said. “The entire country right now seems to be anti-anything asking taxpayers for more money. Taxes just aren’t a popular topic in this parish.”
Although Bueche’s statement may be true, Lemoine said, it doesn’t mean things have to stay that away.
“Let’s change the public perception of how we feel about public education in this parish,” Lemoine said.
He said the district has lost 48 percent of its teaching staff in the past two years.
Aside from renewals of various sales and property taxes that have been on the books for decades, there have been only two attempts by taxing authorities in the parish in the past decade to get voters to approve new property taxes.
Both were soundly rejected by voters.
A 12-mill property tax proposal from former Sheriff Paul Raymond Smith was rebuffed by 71 percent of the voters in a January 2005 election, and a 9-mill school tax to support elementary and secondary schools was shot down by 73 percent that October.
Parish voters did approve a 1-cent sales tax in 1999, though, to provide each teacher with an extra check of about $2,000 each year.
But the checks went out for only two years, according to Allen, the former Pointe Coupee teacher. He said the school district decided to use that money instead to pay its portion of health care benefits for teachers. Only a few extra checks have gone out at year’s end since then, Allen said, and they’ve been for smaller amounts.
Allen said frustration with how things played out is why he and a lot of teachers fled the district back then and sought employment in surrounding parishes.
“We felt like they had misled the public because we were lied to,” said Allen, who now teaches in Iberville Parish. “If they went about this in a straightforward way and said, ‘We screwed up a couple of years ago. Let’s give them their 13th check,’ we could get behind this new tax. But why trust them now when it has been continuous lies?”
Board member Tom Nelson, who has spent the past two decades on the board, said the 1-cent sales tax revenue was folded into the district’s salary schedule.
“Any surplus we have, they get an additional check,” he said. “You can only estimate how much revenue you’re going to get.”
Terrance says members of his group are still upset about the board’s decision to transform Pointe Coupee Central High into the district’s new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy.
Many black residents in the parish felt Central should have become the district’s lone public high school instead of Livonia after the state’s Recovery School District abandoned the campus and returned control to the district, he said.
“This tax is more about fixing the situation at Livonia, which is not big enough to accommodate all the kids in the parish,” Terrance said. “But they knew that if they would have put it out there like that, it wouldn’t have passed, so they threw the teachers in to get the public’s sympathy.”
Board President Anita LeJeune, who favored seeking a smaller property tax from voters, said the school district will have to come up with some alternative if the tax fails.
“Just because the tax doesn’t pass — should it not — I don’t think it would be fair for us to not give them something,” she said. “We have dedicated people. We need to do whatever we can to get them something.”
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