For the past few years, the joy of spring break in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools has been clouded by doomsday scenarios of imminent budget cuts.
And now? Much less doom.
Superintendent Bernard Taylor on Thursday threw out a much smaller number than he has in the past: $5 million to $10 million in potential cuts for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The cut equates to about 1 percent in spending, versus the 7 percent or 8 percent in years past.
Taylor credited frugal spending and better-than-expected student enrollment, which translates into more state funding.
“The type of work that has been done to hold the line on spending is reflected in the budget you see,” he told the School Board.
The budget the superintendent is referring to is the revised general operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. Taylor submitted it to the board last week. He is not planning to submit a formal 2015-16 proposed general operating budget until late May.
Just two weeks ago, Taylor held one-on-one workshops with board members where, according to a few of those present, Taylor was projecting bigger cuts, estimated as high as $13 million.
Taylor credited two bits of recent news for the school system’s improved bottom line: better than expected Feb. 1 enrollment numbers and lower than expected enrollment at some Baton Rouge charter schools, meaning less payouts to those schools.
Despite the better financial picture, the cutting already has begun.
The School Board recommended on Thursday merging five alternative schools, known as “superintendent academies,” into three. Academies at the Christa McAuliffe Center, 12000 Goodwood Blvd., and the former Wyandotte elementary school, 2525 Wyandotte St., would close. Next year, the students would move to academies at Beechwood, 2555 DeSoto Drive; Greenville, 1645 N. Foster Drive; and Northdale, 10755 Cletus Drive. The estimated annual savings could run as high as $3.6 million.
The School Board agreed to the mergers Thursday and plans to take them up again when it meets April 16. The board, however, put off Taylor’s proposal to demolish Wyandotte, which was built in 1925, after receiving a last-minute appeal from the Foundation for Historic Louisiana.
Taylor said he is not planning general layoffs, but limited layoffs are still possible.
The school system also will likely save money from Thursday’s decision to close Career Academy when the school year ends May 21. The 4-year-old high school received $3.3 million in funding this year. The net savings, however, is unclear. It depends on how many of Career Academy’s 200-plus students in ninth to 11th grades will transfer to other public high schools in Baton Rouge and what costs they generate.
Neither the rosier financial picture nor the proposed cuts will prevent the school system from spending more money in 2015-16 than it takes in.
“We are going to have deficit spending,” Taylor said flatly.
The main reason for continued deficits, he said, is expected growth in charter school enrollment, especially by new and expanding charter schools that are independent of the school system. That alone could cost the school system $10 million more than at present.
The revised 2014-15 budget, which the board is likely to approve April 16, shows the school system raising $423 million and spending almost $430 million. Last summer, the school system was predicting dipping even deeper into its reserves, to the tune of about $21 million.
The reserves themselves are deeper. The revised budget pegs the school system’s year-end surplus at $41.4 million, which is an increase over the $15.1 million originally forecast. That extra money will carry over into 2015-16 and offset cuts and deficit spending.
Payroll and benefit costs are down overall in 2014-15.
Millions in savings came from the school system shifting in 2013 from offering supplementary insurance to retirees through Blue Cross Blue Shield to offering those benefits through a Medicare plan overseen by Humana.
Instructional spending in fiscal 2014-15 is on track to shrink by 3.1 percent, or $6.6 million, compared to original projections.
Some instructional jobs were also eliminated, but the bulk of the savings came from shedding higher paid positions.
“We have not filled as many teaching positions, which is not something to brag about,” said Catherine Fletcher, chief business operations officer.
Not every department is shedding positions. In the area of “instructional staff services,” the school system increased the number of instructional coaches and specialists from 10 to 30, tripling the expense from $570,000 to almost $1.6 million. Another growth area is in assistant principals, which increased from 70 to 84, costing an extra $828,000.