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As seen in this Feb. 16, 2017 photo, Glen Oaks High is among 19 East Baton Rouge school system buildings damaged in the August flood. Total damage is now estimated between $75 million and $100 million. 

Advocate Staff File Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Even as neighboring Livingston Parish is planning to cut 40 positions to deal with the loss of students after August's flooding, East Baton Rouge Parish, which lost an even greater percentage of its students, is opting to draw from budget reserves to avoid job cuts.

That will mean once again spending more money than the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is taking in, this time by about $19 million.

Both school districts suffered severe damage during the historic floods in August and both are still tallying up the cost. Livingston’s latest estimate is $120 million, while East Baton Rouge’s is almost $94 million. Both are seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for up to 90 percent of the cost of flood repairs, a process that will take years to play out.

Livingston lost about 500 students, a 2.3 percent overall enrollment decline. East Baton Rouge lost about 1,100 students, or a 2.6 percent decline. East Baton Rouge’s 40,900 students, however, still makes it the second largest public school district in the state.

The Baton Rouge school system operating budget that takes effect July 1, calls for spending about $19 million more than the system expects to receive in revenue in fiscal year 2017-18. To stay out of red ink, school leaders are planning to draw down their financial reserves.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board plans to hold two debates on the 2017-18 proposed budget — one on Tuesday and the other on Thursday. Both will start at 5 p.m. at the School Board Office, 1050 S. Foster Drive. The board, however, is not planning to approve a budget until June 15 at the earliest.

Superintendent Warren Drake has talked for years about the need to eliminate deficit spending. He cut more than $1 million from Central Office positions and followed up with about $15 million in cuts the following year.

This spring, he proposed a restructuring that would have required closing some schools. The moves would have saved a modest amount of money, but Drake withdrew most of the proposals in April after push back from the public. He said he plans to revisit some of those ideas this coming school year.

The reserves the school system plans to draw down are currently estimated at almost $52 million, nearly double what school officials estimated a year ago they’d be at this time. And, if history is any guide, they could grow even more. Last year, the school system ended up with nearly $19 million more in its reserves when it balanced its books in July compared to what it had estimated three months earlier.

The school system’s general fund accounts for 74 percent of the more than $600 million the school system spends each year. The fund is the system’s primary source of unrestricted money to pay for operating expenses, to finance new initiatives or to cover emergencies.

The lack of cuts for East Baton Rouge Parish is a departure from the recent past. Since 2010, the school system has cut its budget annually because of a mix of tight state funding, a variety of expenses and growing competition from charter schools.

In 2017-18, overall spending is clocking in at about $450 million. That’s an increase of $5.3 million, or about 1 percent more, versus the 2016-17 budget.

The spending column is also benefiting from an ongoing renegotiation of its facilities management contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark that is expected to save at least $3 million.

Meanwhile, revenue from both state and local sources is projected to decline from $434.5 to $431 million, a decline of almost 1 percent, compared with 2016-17.

The drop is being driven partly by a projected $5.6 million decline in sales tax collections as spending on new cars and furniture post flooding dies out. Property taxes, however, are expected to bring about 3 percent more next year, offsetting some of that loss.

State revenue is also expected to drop about $1.4 million. Part of that is because enrollment declines are expected to continue. The school system estimates that 847 fewer students will be enrolled in 2017-18.

Drake is proposing a few new spending items:

  • New science textbooks in all grades: $2 million estimated cost.
  • Increasing the pay of some food service workers: $700,000.
  • New magnet programs at Woodlawn Middle and Woodlawn High schools: $600,000.
  • A $3,500 stipend for middle and high school math and science teachers who hold a master’s degree in their content area: $200,000.
  • Increasing pay rates for long-term substitute teachers by 3 percent: $40,000.

One area of uncertainty is how the school system will pay for flood damages that FEMA says it won't cover.

The proposed general operating budget set aside $4 million for this purpose. But in a letter to the board, Chief Financial Officer Kelly Lopez notes that the school district is hoping to be able to tap into a $105 million pool of federal money the state plans to give to local governments to help offset flooding related costs  FEMA won’t cover.

Lopez noted that there’s no guarantee how much money the school system will receive from this fund, if any, and no money will be available until October at the earliest.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier