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Tangipahoa Parish school officials are eyeing a tax proposal to fund work on school facilities that were put on the back burner as public confidence dipped and the decades-long desegregation case hindered construction efforts.

Many schools, particularly in faster-growing areas like Hammond and Ponchatoula, have been using temporary trailer-type structures for years, and others still are doubling up classes in campus libraries for lack of space, said Superintendent Melissa Stilley.

Those structures served their purpose for a long time, Stilley said, but with a sharp growth in the student population in the 2019-20 school year, facilities work is quickly becoming critical.

Louisiana Department of Education data show TPSS enrollment took a dive in the 2014-15 school year, going from 20,041 students to 19,345 students as a number of families moved out of the district or transferred to private or charter schools.

But enrollment has since been climbing back up, with the most recent data from the school system showing 19,957 students enrolled as of Oct. 1. That's a gain of close to 600 students since last October.

“That’s a pretty big jump for us in one year, and we have particular schools that have increased their enrollment every year consistently so they’ve outgrown their facilities,” Stilley said.

100619 Tangipahoa school enrollment

She added, “I think the growth and numbers are a positive thing, and I think people in the parish are seeing the public school system as a very good option for them where before maybe they were doing a charter or private school option.”

The School Board hasn't yet officially discussed a tax proposal but it's long been assumed as necessary.

The district hasn’t had much luck with past tax proposals, having been struck down twice due in large part to the ongoing desegregation case.

The U.S. District Court case, Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board, is a 1960s-era lawsuit aiming to desegregate schools. A judge ordered the closure of black schools in the district, but the case stayed open and remained dormant until the mid-2000s when it was revived as many in the black community worried schools were again becoming racially separated.

While under the court’s watch, the district was limited in everything from hiring practices to building construction, and needed the judge’s sign-off before it could move ahead with any new ventures.

However, the school district and the Moores’ attorney reached a milestone in the complex case recently, jointly finding a solution they’re presenting to the judge that would finally end the decades-old litigation.

If approved, the district would remain under watch for another three years, after which the case officially closes and it gives the district a little more freedom if they abide by the agreed-upon terms.

School Board member Brett Duncan, whose district includes the growing Hammond, Loranger and Natalbany areas, said he thinks there’s been enough of a shift these past few years to warrant proposing a tax again.

“There’s no doubt about it that in previous campaigns to try get additional funding, the biggest pushback we’d get is that (while the desegregation case was ongoing), the judge could redirect the new dollars to whatever the judge wanted, which may not go to what the people voted for,” Duncan said. “We’re hoping that now folks will be more open to the idea of a property or sales tax.”

Officials are still in the early stages of a tax proposal idea, trying to determine whether a property or sales tax would be the best option.

Opponents of a property tax in the past have been big landowners like farmers who say they’d pay a lot more money and many others wouldn’t pay anything due to homestead exemption. They pushed for an option where everyone would pay.

A penny sales tax increase would bring in $22 million per year, Stilley said, and would fund facility improvements as well as bump up  teacher pay to stay competitive with surrounding districts.

But for some schools, the wait to go through the voting process is too long. Officials are planning to start work as early as this fall on a  facilities project that would see the district bond out $10 million without needing to impose a new tax.

The district still has six years left to pay off its  newest school — O.W. Dillon Elementary School in Kentwood, built in 2013. But Stilley said the district could borrow $10 million now and only pay the interest until O.W. Dillon is paid off. After that, they’d begin making payments on the $10 million, through existing funds.

She’s hesitant to give a priority list of which schools are likely to see a facelift in this first phase of the facilities work, as the measure hasn’t yet gone to the board to decide. She said a proposal is likely to come before the board within the next few weeks, focused on such elements as constructing additional classroom wings to replace temporary structures.

“It’s kind of like triage,” Stilley said. “We have real emergency-type situations we’ve got to deal with and plan for and we really can’t wait for the public to say yes at the polls. Then we’ve got Phase 2, which is more triage but also will be planning for the needs of every school in the parish.”

The board in July approved a contract with CSRS Inc. to develop a 5-year facilities plan that would map out how best to prioritize school growth according to projected enrollment jumps. That plan should be complete by early next year, Stilley said.

Officials expect to use that plan to finalize a tax proposal to bring to voters.

Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.