Amid state budget problems, Gov. John Bel Edwards next month will recommend a freeze in basic state aid for public schools, an aide to the governor said Tuesday.
Donald Songy, education policy adviser for Edwards, made the first-time disclosure during a meeting of a task force that advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
BESE is set to make its funding request to the Louisiana Legislature on March 7-8, and the advisory panel said a $35 million hike in basic school aid should be its top priority.
But Songy said Edwards weighed that option, had discussions with officials of the budget arm of his administration and opted not to back what would be a 1.375 percent increase, to $4,015 per student.
"They cannot support the per pupil increase in the executive budget," Songy told the 27-member panel. "He is putting a realistic budget out there."
The governor is set to unveil his executive spending plans next month for the legislative session that begins April 10.
A major revenue shortfall is expected for the financial year that begins July 1.
In addition, a special session is expected before that – likely in mid February – to grapple with still more financial problems that sparked two special sessions last year.
A standstill budget for public schools would be in keeping with what schools have mostly experienced since 2009, including last year, because of recurring state budget troubles.
Educators say a freeze means even inflationary expenses for textbooks, school supplies and other areas will have to be absorbed as cash reserves dwindle. Teacher retirement costs alone are expected to cost districts $38 million more and rising health insurance costs regularly cause budget challenges.
The state is spending about $3.7 billion for the current school year.
Edwards will back an $8 million increase in state dollars for high-need students and $10 million more to pay for mostly high school courses, like classes for college credit and career education students.
Despite the governor's stance superintendents and others said their top priority is the $35 million increase in basic state aid for all students.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association and a member of the task force, said more money for basic school aid would give superintendents more flexibility.
Part of the task force debate focused on whether the group should recommend what it thinks schools need versus curbing recommendations in light of state budget problems.
"We need to say that we need the money," said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.
Others said that in light of the budget, the panel should go along with the governor's plan to spend $18 million more on targeted needs.
Brigitte Nieland, who oversees education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said while other state services are sure to face cuts public schools stand to gain $18 million "and we are arguing about it."
Last week state House Republican leader Lance Harris of Alexandria offered a budget plan aimed at preventing a special session, including a $29 million cut to public education.
BESE President Jim Garvey, another task force member, said Edwards' recommendations signal what he believes can win approval in the Legislature.
Garvey said that, if lawmakers see that the panel backs a $35 million hike in basic school aid, "I think it is going to leave a really bad taste in the mouths of a lot of legislators."
Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, said the governor's plan to bolster two education areas is actually a restoration of dollars cut in recent years.
For the first time in decades, state aid for public schools may actually take a dive.
The panel recommended a 1.375 percent increase last year, but BESE submitted a standstill budget to the Legislature.
"This year we really are in extraordinary times," state Superintendent of Education John White said of Louisiana's financial outlook.
The panel is called the Minimum Foundation Program Task Force, a reference to the formula used to allocate school dollars. The group includes state lawmakers, superintendents, teachers, business groups and officials of education organizations.