Voters throughout East Baton Rouge Parish will be asked on Saturday to renew for 10 more years three separate property taxes dedicated to education.
These taxes were last renewed on April 29, 2006, by margins of 62-to-38 percent. There was almost nothing else on the ballot that day. Less than 6 percent of registered voters turned out.
The ballot Saturday, by contrast, is full and turnout is expected to be higher. Voters will try to select a new governor, fill out statewide offices, pick a new Legislature and consider four proposed amendments to the state constitution.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, of the six local propositions on the ballot, only renewing a property tax for libraries is parishwide. Most voters, though, with the exception of those living in Baker, Central and Zachary, will consider the three school tax renewals.
Putting so many tax renewals in a general election is a risk. Low-turnout special elections generally attract only the interest of supporters and are safer bets.
East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake, who took over the state’s second largest school district in June, is embracing that risk.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have it during a high-turnout election,” said Drake. “It puts us in the forefront. I think people are recognizing a change and that we are working hard to push this system forward.”
He has already sent out emails to school employees urging them to vote and plans to follow up with a one-page informational mailer to voters.
“I know that I can’t say vote ‘yes,’ and I’m not going to do that, but the critical thing is that we get people out to vote,” Drake said.
Here are the three school property tax propositions on the Oct. 24 ballot:
PROPOSITION 1: A 0.72-mill tax earmarked for I Care, a 35-year-old alcohol- and drug-abuse prevention program. The tax generates almost $2.5 million a year, the program’s sole source of funding.
PROPOSITION 2: A 1.04-mill tax for general operations and maintenance of the parish school system. The tax generates almost $3.6 million a year.
PROPOSITION 3: A 5.99-mill tax devoted to parish school system employee salaries and benefits. The tax generates almost $20.5 million a year.
Collectively, these amount to 7.75 mills in taxes, or about $26.5 million in annual revenue. They account for 18 percent of what the school system receives in property taxes, and almost 5 percent of all school system revenue each year.
The three property taxes amount to a total annual tax bill of $58.12 for a home assessed at $150,000, and $135.62 for a home assessed at $250,000. They are subject to Louisiana’s homestead exemption, so the first $75,000 in value on the home is not taxed.
If not renewed Saturday, the school system would have at least one more chance next year to change the minds of voters. The three taxes are set to expire in 2016.
The school system has repeatedly had to dip into its reserves to balance its budget over the past few years in the face of flat state education funding and increased competition from private and independent charter schools. Failure to renew these property taxes would likely mean budget cuts, though Drake won’t go there.
“I don’t want to even think what would happen if this didn’t pass,” Drake said.
I Care’s 0.72-mill tax represents virtually all of its revenue. Failure to renew the property tax would likely mean the popular drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention program would be abolished. The program has expanded its services for children through the year, offering crisis counseling and help with anger management.
Of the other two propositions, the most critical is Proposition 3, which supports school salaries and benefits. Its failure, if nothing were changed, would mean an automatic pay cut for the system’s 6,000 school employees.
The money generated from this property tax is pooled with money collected from a separate 1-cent sales tax and serves as a supplement to the base salary of all school employees. For teachers, these supplements range from as little as $3,750 to more than $16,000 a year, depending on their experience and their higher education degrees.
“I want to honor our teachers,” Drake said. “I want to see that they can continue to receive the salaries they’ve been receiving.”
Drake said he has impressed upon principals and all school employees that they work for the residents of East Baton Rouge and that “we need to be responsible to them.” That goes down just turning off the lights when you leave a room, he said.
“I hope the people of Baton Rouge think we’re good stewards of their money, that they put their trust in us,” Drake said. “I feel pretty good about our schools. We are chipping away at our deficits, and I think we are going to do more in the near future.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter @Charles_Lussier.