The East Baton Rouge School Board on Thursday punted until an unspecified date on a resolution pushed by educators and activists to reject all future industrial property tax exemptions, a measure that set off a debate over the tax break and teacher pay.
The vote to defer, and comments from school board members, indicated the measure is unlikely to pass if it ever comes back up. The board shot down an effort to delay a vote until June, which proponents saw as a way to work out differences and eventually pass a measure on ITEP. However, members did agree generally that employees and teachers should get pay raises.
Educators and school employees, along with activists with the community organizing group Together Baton Rouge, packed the school board meeting and called on the board to reject the exemptions moving forward and use the money instead for salary increases.
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After reaching the measure on the agenda, school board members quickly moved to postpone voting on the proposal. Board member Dawn Collins, who brought the measure, admitted she did not have the votes to pass it.
But the board agreed to hear public comment from a crowd that had waited nearly three hours to speak about the issue.
The ensuing debate uncovered simmering discontent among educators about low teacher pay. Teachers and other school employees told emotional stories of working multiple jobs, including driving for ride-hailing services, to afford to live on current salaries. Many drew attention to the last time teachers received an across-the-board raise, which was a decade ago.
“It’s tough making ends meet every two weeks,” said Laverne Simoneaux, who teaches English as a second language at Woodlawn Elementary. “I’m a taxpayer in the district. But our business neighbors need to support our schools too.”
While critics cast the state's Industrial Tax Exemption Program as corporate welfare, representatives of industry groups defended the program as critical to economic development. The board meeting was the latest iteration of a debate that has played out publicly between business groups and critics of ITEP for months.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, led a group of red-clad LAE members waving signs at cars passing by the school board offices on Foster Boulevard as the meeting kicked off. Dozens more LAE advocates packed the meeting room, and the crowd overflowed into the foyer. At one point, a teacher asked those in support of the resolution to stand, and nearly everyone in the room rose and applauded.
A teacher walkout on the last day of school had been rumored in Baton Rouge if the school board did not vote for the ITEP resolution, but educator groups said Thursday that won’t happen. Asked whether a walkout or strike is on the horizon in the long term if salaries aren’t raised, Meaux said she hopes the school board will “not say a flat no” to the ITEP idea and work with the employee groups to discuss pay hikes.
If it eventually passes, the resolution, while non-binding, would signal a critical approach from school officials toward ITEP, a tax incentive which has existed for 80 years. The program gives manufacturers property tax breaks for capital improvements and is the state’s largest tax break program.
As onlookers waited for the school board to plow through a lengthy agenda before reaching the ITEP measure, Connie Fabre, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, passed out brochures that told “the rest of the story” of ITEP, touting benefits of the program. The brochures served as a counterweight to competing flyers with statistics showing low teacher pay in the parish passed out by Together Baton Rouge organizers. Fabre also testified in opposition to the resolution.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber, a vocal proponent of ITEP, spoke out against the resolution. Logan Anderson, BRAC’s director of governmental affairs and special projects, called ITEP critical to economic development in the parish, which must compete with other parishes, states and countries for investments.
“This resolution … would give a clear and unambiguous signal that East Baton Rouge is closed for business,” Anderson said. “This is not good economic policy.”
While BRAC supports higher teacher pay, Anderson argued the resolution was not a good way to achieve that goal.
“This is an unspecified increase using dollars that don’t exist,” he said.
Several industry groups have rallied support for ITEP in recent weeks, echoing similar sentiments to BRAC’s. The Louisiana Chemical Association, which spoke against the resolution Thursday, last week released an economic analysis of the industry that centers on the need for ITEP. GBRIA also conducted its own study and held its own meeting on ITEP recently.
Local communities are still grappling with their newfound authority over the ITEP requests, nearly two years after an executive order from Gov. John Bel Edwards that reined in the program, giving local bodies a say in the process. Edwards’ administration recently proposed new changes to that order, which if implemented this year would give the local bodies, like the school board, an up-or-down vote on whether to approve ITEP exemptions in full.
Orleans Parish School Board on Thursday considered a resolution similar to the one considered in Baton Rouge, but members there also punted on the measure.
Together Baton Rouge and the Louisiana Association of Educators have pushed for the resolution in Baton Rouge for the past two weeks. The last across-the-board pay raise was in 2008, and proponents of the resolution say East Baton Rouge teachers’ hourly pay is among the worst in the state, which already lags far behind its southern peers and the nation.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Federation of Teachers joined the effort this week, and the local bus drivers association and the Service Employees International Union Local 21LA are also in support of the resolution and had members at Thursday’s meeting.