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Advocate file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Leaders of two teacher unions with members in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system both say that neither is planning a walkout if the parish School Board fails Thursday night to agree to quit granting industrial tax exemptions and use that money instead to pay school employees more.

“We need to negotiate with the local School Board,” said Angela Reams Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, or EBRFT. “We’d rather do that first. We don’t walk out on our students and walk out on our teachers."

“There is not a plan for a walkout on Tuesday, May 22,” said Gretchen Lampe, an organizer with the Louisiana Association of Educators, or LAE “There were rumors at one point but never something that was ever planned.”

Next Tuesday, May 22, is the last day of the school year for students in East Baton Rouge. It’s a half day. School employees return for an employees-only work day on Wednesday before heading to summer break.

For the past two weeks, LAE and Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of religious and community-based organizations, have been floating a petition urging the School Board to adopt a resolution that it reject all requests through Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, and commit to using the extra tax money to fund employee pay raises. The last across-the-board pay raise was in 2008.

On Wednesday, they were joined by the East Baton Rouge Parish Federation of Teachers.

“They have been part of the discussions from the beginning and they had not formally joined in until now,” explained Brod Bagert, lead organizer for Together Baton Rouge, describing it as “a pretty big development.”

LAE reported Wednesday that it has collected more than 2,500 petitions and expects hundreds of its members to be present at Thursday’s night’s meeting, which is set to begin at 5 p.m. and is taking place at the School Board Office, 1050 S. Foster Drive. The proposed resolution is at the end of a long agenda.

Brown said she is urging East Baton Rouge Parish Federation of Teachers members to show up in force as well. She said that a lengthy ITEP debate in December, when the board granted a small exemption to the Tin Roof Brewery, was educational for her.

“That kind of opened our eyes to a revenue source for all of our employees,” Brown said.

Brown said she met with Bagert Wednesday to cement the organization's support. But she said that she made clear when the topic of holding a walkout on the last day of school came up that her organization was against the idea. She said the last day of school is often a fun day, one many educators look forward to.

“We don’t want to give up the opportunity to say goodbye to our students for the summer,” she said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Bus Drivers Association and the Service Employees International Union Local 21LA are also in support and are encouraging members to be at Thursday’s School Board meeting.

The push for an employee pay raise comes as the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is preparing to make millions of dollars in budget cuts. Superintendent Warren Drake told The Advocate he supports an employee pay raise, but the tight budget makes a pay raise unlikely at least until some time during the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

For decades, ITEP operated with little oversight. But in 2016, newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered that companies seeking the property tax break had to get approval from various local taxing districts — school boards, municipalities, parishes and sheriff’s offices — before the state Board of Commerce & Industry could grant the exemption.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has yet to take a position on how it plans to handle requests for such exemptions in the future. 

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.