Layoffs, program cuts in mix as Louisiana public schools take ‘devastating’ hit amid budget mess _lowres

Debbie Meaux (Photo by Travis Spradling, The Advocate) ORG XMIT: BAT1604201607275291

State aid for about 720,000 public school students in Louisiana is about to take its first nosedive in decades.

Layoffs, crowded classrooms and program cuts all are in the mix, said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, and other education leaders.

School districts will have $24 million less in the coming year than they did during the 2015-16 school year, thanks to Louisiana’s budget crisis and a less-than-successful second special session that ended Thursday.

“It is going to be devastating for some of our school districts, some of our teachers and certainly for our kids,” Meaux said.

Public schools have grappled with mostly standstill budgets since 2009 despite rising costs for retirement, health insurance and other expenses. But, veteran school watchers said, this is the first time since the 1980s that state aid actually will dip compared with the previous year.

Brian LeJeune, the new president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said districts are faced with having to come up with dollars for dual enrollment and other popular programs.

LeJeune, superintendent of the Jefferson Davis Parish school system in southwest Louisiana, said the state is “squeezing the budgets in a way that is forcing more on the districts.”

The state faced a $600 million budget shortfall starting July 1, including a $44 million gap in what public schools receive. Lawmakers raised $263 million in the special session.

The House voted to narrow the gap for public schools to about $16 million, with the possibility of wiping it out altogether if state finances brighten. But the Senate rewrote that plan, and the Legislature left public schools with a $24 million gap and no contingencies.

Les Landon, spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the education money shortfall stems from lawmakers pitting public schools against higher education to “fight over the scraps.”

Lawmakers showed “a shameful lack of courage to do what is right for 700,000 students in Louisiana,” Landon said. “It is going to hurt.”

Not everyone agreed with the complaints.

“In today’s recessionary times, all areas of state government have had to take reductions in revenue,” said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, a former chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

“This situation is not likely to change anytime soon,” Appel wrote in an email response to questions.

“Perhaps so they don’t have to ask for increases every year, the school districts will consider reform ideas that would ensure that tax dollars are spent more efficiently and effectively,” he said.

Others noted that public schools dodged budget cuts in previous year when higher education, health care and other state services were slashed.

The state’s key source of school aid, called the Minimum Foundation Program, will remain the same as it was for the 2015-16 school year.

What is being cut amounts to a Minimum Foundation Program supplement. It is money for teacher pay hikes of $500 or $600 and other areas approved last year, in part at the urging of then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

Teachers in districts that treated the money as stipends could lose that pay bump.

Aid for students with the most costly disabilities also could be trimmed.

The exact impact will vary from district to district.

“I think the $24 million gap is certainly going to hit our classrooms,” Meaux said. “How it hits the classroom is going to be up to the districts.”

Also taking a budget hit are vouchers — state aid to allow students from low-income families attending public schools rated C, D or F to attend private schools at the state’s expense.

About 7,100 students, mostly in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, got the aid in the past school year. About 7,500 students are expected to seek vouchers for the upcoming school year.

However, the state has allocated just $40 million for the program, down from $42 million last school year.

“The question is not whether there will be a waiting list,” state Superintendent of Education John White said. “The question is just how long the wait list will be. The list is going to be hundreds and hundreds of kids long.”

Whether even the $40 million appropriation will stand is unclear.

Edwards is a critic of vouchers, but he also mentioned the shortfall in money for the program as one of the topics for the just-ended special session.

Voucher backers call the assistance a way for poor kids to get out of troubled schools. Critics call it a drain on public schools.

The murky outlook for who will get the vouchers this time is hard on families, said Stacy Martin, state director for the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Most voucher recipients are minorities.

Martin said some families already have registered their children at private schools and now have to scramble to find alternatives.

“It is a little disappointing,” she said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.