In a rerun of previous years, public school leaders are gearing up for crowded classrooms, program cuts and possible layoffs after learning that Gov. John Bel Edwards will recommend another freeze in basic state aid to public schools.
"It's a broken record," said Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of Superintendents and superintendent of the highly ranked West Feliciana Parish school system.
Donald Songy, education policy adviser for Edwards, told an influential task force Tuesday that the governor cannot go along with a $35 million hike in basic aid, one of three options offered by the state Department of Education.
Amid state budget problems, Gov. John Bel Edwards next month will recommend a freeze in basi…
The decision, sparked mostly by recurring state budget problems, was not well-received by the panel, which includes longtime education backers of the governor.
"There needs to be more dialogue with local stakeholders, with the Governor's Office and with legislators," Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said two days later.
The proposed freeze — a common theme since 2009 for public schools — would apply to the 2017-18 school year.
It would follow a $24 million cut in dollars for public schools in 2016, Edwards' first year in office.
For the first time in decades, state aid for public schools may actually take a dive.
School leaders said that because of lean times for nearly a decade, the lack of any new dollars for basic services this time is especially worrisome.
Districts face a $38 million increase in teacher retirement costs alone, which is $3 million more than the proposed increase in state aid Edwards turned down.
The rising cost of health insurance is another common complaint.
Michael Faulk, superintendent of the second-ranked Central school system, listed nearly $1 million in mandatory increases his system faces, including teacher retirement costs and janitorial and other contracts.
Faulk said the district's reserves — about $3 million — were depleted by about $8 million in flood-related costs. Any federal reimbursement for those expenses is up to four years away.
"Until the (budget) situation is addressed on a statewide basis, we are going to be in flux," he said.
Public school financing will play out during the 2017 regular legislative session, which begins April 10.
State services face another huge shortfall — $400 million in an early estimate — for the financial year that begins July 1, and both higher education and health care already have been battered by years of funding reductions.
Persistent money problems resurrected fears Monday that public schools will face their first…
At stake is what the state spends on the currently $3.7 billion funding formula called the Minimum Foundation Program.
Increases of 2.75 percent or more a year, or about $70 million, used to be common. But this time, the governor rejected half that amount — 1.375 percent, or $35 million.
What the state spends per student — $3,961 — has been mostly static for the past eight years. It was unchanged for six consecutive years, starting in 2009, before rising by $106 to its current level, where it has been for three years in a row.
On the plus side, schools won increases of $69 million in 2013 and $44 million in 2015, but they were outside the Minimum Foundation Program, which means they are not recurring.
Songy said Edwards will recommend an $18 million increase for high-needs students and dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit.
Despite the governor's stance, the task force voted 12-6 on Jan. 24 to ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to seek the $35 million increase from the Legislature. BESE is set to decide on that March 8.
The basic aid increase is needed, backers said, because districts need flexibilit, and targeted spending increases will leave out some of Louisiana's 69 school districts.
"The best way I can explain it is there are winners and losers the way those dollars flow out," Milton said. "West Feliciana may not get any dollars from that."
Richard said putting the money into the Minimum Foundation Program is more equitable.
Another freeze in state aid will spark a new round of reductions by local school systems.
"It means systems are forced to make some very hard decisions," said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators. "They begin laying off employees, they start overcrowding classrooms, they start eliminating programs."
Brigitte Nieland, a member of the task force, was among a handful who said last week the governor's critics were being short-sighted.
"These complaints about retirement are valid," said Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
"But they have rejected all efforts for serious retirement reform," Nieland said of traditional public school groups. "They have not come forward with any proposals of their own."
Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said those classrooms face the same concerns as traditional public schools. "It is a very stressful time right now for everyone," she said. "Our state is in a hard spot financially."
About 75,000 students attend Louisiana's roughly 145 charter schools. The state has about 720,000 public school students.
Richard said years of static funding, and the $24 million cut last year, will affect classrooms. "It is going to ultimately reduce services to students," he said.
"The cost of providing services has not gone down," he said. "Operational costs, just turning the lights on, that hasn't gone down anytime lately."
The freeze is a setback for some of Edwards' most ardent supporters, including teacher unions.
"We know that the governor doesn't want to do any of the cuts," Meaux said.