Give Warren Drake credit for trying.
The superintendent of the Zachary Community School District persuaded his School Board on April 26 to test the state’s new voucher program by agreeing to accept 15 kindergarten and 15 first-grade students who would normally attend so-called C-, D- and F-rated schools in the area near Zachary next school year.
Although Zachary’s A-rated school district usually experiences growing pains every year, Drake reasoned that teachers at the Early Learning Center and Rollins Place Elementary School could absorb one extra child in each of their classrooms and make a difference in those 30 children’s lives.
Drake recalled the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, when Zachary joined other area school districts in providing space for children from New Orleans and other areas hard hit by Katrina.
Zachary took in 300 evacuees, or about a tenth of its 2005 enrollment, “overnight” and never missed a beat, Drake said.
The superintendent said Zachary should participate in the Jindal administration’s “student scholarship program” the Legislature had approved a few weeks earlier because “as good as our teachers are, we should try to help some kids.”
Board members went along with the idea, although some appeared to have private reservations about inviting students from other districts.
By the time a week had passed, however, the community had responded with a wave of criticism that persuaded board members and Drake to abandon the idea.
A news release the district issued May 7 said many Zachary residents had expressed fears over the “potential financial impact” of the program.
The superintendent said he understood a voucher payment would include only the state’s portion of the per-pupil allocation under the Minimum Foundation Program, or about $4,000.
When the figure was mentioned again in a newspaper article announcing Zachary’s change of heart, state Education Superintendent John White quickly released a statement that said the Zachary board’s reversal “was based on false information.”
Rather than $4,000 as Drake expected, the voucher payment would be the full MFP amount for the district from which the student transferred, or a state average of $8,500, White said.
Perhaps the confusion could be partially attributed to the haste in which the Jindal administration pushed the voucher bills through the Legislature.
Not only did the top administrator of the top-ranked school district in the state not know how the funding was to be applied, but the finance director of the highly-rated West Feliciana Parish school system was equally in the dark.
The local portion of the MFP allocation comes from taxes approved by the voters of that district. Thus, if a C-, D- or F-rated district’s per-student MFP amount is $7,000, and $2,450 comes from local taxes, the state will simply deduct $2,450 from what the district would otherwise receive from the state and send it with the child to the A- or B-rated district.
In the end, however, only one public elementary school, in St. Landry Parish, signed up for voucher students, according to an article in The Advocate.
James Minton covers Baker, Zachary and the Felicianas for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.