For the first time in decades, state aid for public schools may actually take a dive.
Under current plans, Louisiana’s 69 school districts face a $44 million cut for the 2016-17 school year amid state budget problems.
What it would mean, education officials said, is layoffs in some areas, pay cuts for teachers in about half the districts and other reductions.
Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said the reduction would trigger layoffs in numerous school districts statewide.
“At a time when public schools have instituted much positive change, we should receive the level of funding that we have received in the past,” said Milton, who is superintendent of the highly rated West Feliciana Parish school district.
Even in the midst of a state financial crisis — state services face a $600 million shortfall starting July 1 — it was not supposed to be this way.
The $3.7 billion Minimum Foundation Program is the key source of state aid for public schools.
After years of going up at least 2.75 percent per year, funding has been mostly frozen since 2009 amid persistent state budget troubles.
In February, Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was elected last year with support from teachers unions and other traditional public school groups, said he planned to keep funding at current levels.
“I am committed to making sure, first of all, we don’t cut the MFP,” Edwards told a gathering hosted by the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of Louisiana’s two teachers unions.
But Edwards backed off that pledge in March amid persistent money problems and what he called the Legislature’s unwillingness to raise enough money during the first special session.
As a result, an MFP resolution approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in March, including the $44 million that Edwards asked BESE to include, is dead in the Senate Education Committee.
Unless more dollars are raised for public schools in the second special session that starts Monday at 6:30 p.m., teachers, students and others will feel the impact of Louisiana’s budget crisis more so than in the past.
The $44 million in the spotlight was not technically in the MFP approved last year.
However, it was added to the key operating budget proposal — House Bill 1 — and was clearly part of the public school aid package. It allowed public schools to emerge from the 2015 Legislature with modest gains while public hospitals, higher education and other areas absorbed outright reductions.
Most of the money was supposed to protect teacher pay hikes from 2013 that averaged nearly $600. About $8 million was earmarked for high-cost special education students and dual enrollment.
Even if the $44 million becomes reality, teachers in districts that built those raises into salary schedules would be protected.
Teachers in districts that treated them as stipends — an estimated half the districts — could lose the money because of this year’s reduction.
In addition, school districts statewide would see reductions.
Those cuts include St. Tammany school district, $3 million; Jefferson, $2.6 million; East Baton Rouge, $2.3 million; Ascension, $1.4 million; Livingston, $1.7 million; and Lafayette, $1.6 million, according to the state Department of Education.
Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the LAE, said a $44 million reduction could force school districts to activate reduction in force plans — layoffs.
“We don’t want to see it happen,” Riddle said.
“But it is very likely that if the money does not stay at the same level that it was for the ’15-16 year with the $44 million added to House Bill 1, then districts could very well face reduction in force,” he said.
One way out of the $44 million cut would be if the Legislature approves tax hikes and takes other steps to erase the $600 million shortfall, or much of it.
“We hear a lot about hospitals, we hear a lot about TOPS,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association. “But K-12 is definitely part of this special session from our view and from the governor’s perspective.
“He has committed that K-12 will be part of the discussion, that if revenue is raised that will be one of the priorities,” he said.
In the past, annual public school hikes totaled $75 million or more.
This time, the aim is to stand pat.
“Our hope is there will be revenue available to maintain where we are now and not see a drop-off in funding,” Richard said.
Riddle, whose group is launching a campaign costing up to the $60,000 to persuade lawmakers to raise money, is confident that will happen.
“We are pretty optimistic that money will be found,” he said.
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