Education leaders are worried public schools face their first cut in state aid in decades because of Louisiana’s budget crisis.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said standstill funding for schools is a best-case scenario, and an outright reduction is possible.
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” said Richard, who attended an education budget briefing at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday.
“I can’t reiterate that enough,” he said. “The situation is very serious.”
Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said he has mixed views about the outlook for school finances — bleak or bleaker.
“Right now, I would lean toward a standstill budget,” Milton said. “But I think this is going to change every day as they find out how to make ends meet.”
State services face a shortfall of up to $750 million between now and June 30 and $1.9 billion for the financial year that begins on July 1.
State aid for public schools has weathered budget cuts in recent years by either remaining flat or with slight increases, unlike the harder-hit higher education.
However, the outlook pits those who predict a no-growth budget in the key source of state aid — the $3.7 billion Minimum Foundation Program — and those who think outright cuts are possible for the state’s 69 school districts.
That could spell teacher and other layoffs, crowded classrooms and fewer resources for students.
The last MFP cut was in the 1980s, officials said.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, and Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the group, said they think state school aid will at least remain at current levels.
“As the governor has said many times and said in his inaugural speech, K-12 is one of his priorities,” Riddle said. “He may flatline it. I don’t really think there is a reduction on the horizon.”
Both the educators and school boards associations are Gov. John Bel Edwards’ allies.
State aid for public schools rose by $36 million last year despite major budget problems, just the third such hike since 2008.
Edwards, then a state representative, was a key sponsor of that increase.
The boost was half of what a task force recommended, and school leaders say they are still struggling after years of modest finances.
Riddle said dollars for schools fell 8.1 percent between 2008-14.
A special session on the budget starts Feb. 14.
The regular session opens on March 14, and that is when school aid for the 2016-17 school year will be decided.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will make its request to the Legislature before the regular session.
BESE President Jim Garvey, of Metairie, said he is confident schools will be OK after dodging cuts under former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“Jindal was able to protect the MFP, and I would think the governor, with the support he received from the teacher unions, would be even more prone to protect the MFP,” Garvey said.
Edwards’ office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Meaux said public school budget worries point up the wisdom of a decision Thursday by a state panel against a proposed retirement plan that would have cost local districts $95 million in the 2016-17 school year.
She said no one disputes the need to trim the $11 billion debt in the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana. “It is when we do it, and now is not the time,” Meaux said.
Milton said budget cuts would jeopardize his district’s implementation of Louisiana’s new prekindergarten program, a revamped career education effort called Jump Start and online testing.
“Obviously, there is going to be a lot of pain,” said Milton, who is superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school district.
Richard said the education budget briefing at the Governor’s Mansion was sobering.
He said a cut in state aid could force some school districts into financial exigency, which gives them more layoff and other powers.
“It would result in major disruptions in current operations in many school districts,” Richard said.
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