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Parents and teachers pack the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board meeting room on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, as the board considers cutting classes to four days a week and closing schools to address a budget deficit.

NEW ROADS — The Pointe Coupee Parish School Board pumped the brakes on plans to shutter two elementary schools and eliminate Monday classes, amid overwhelming criticism from teachers and parents who told school leaders Thursday to find another way to solve the district's budget woes. 

The district is running on a nearly $1 million budget deficit that's expected to swell to $1.5 million. It's forced school officials to search for cost-cutting and money-generating ideas.

Among the cost-saving measures the board considered, and eventually tabled at its meeting Thursday evening, were closing Upper Pointe Coupee and Rougon elementary schools, expanding Livonia High to cover 6th through 12th grades, and moving an alternative learning program to the Rosenwald Elementary campus.

Hundreds of people packed the school board chambers with an overfill crowd spilling into the hallway, as teachers, parents and community leaders criticized the potential cuts.

Shay Chauvin, a special education teacher at Upper Pointe Coupee Elementary, told school leaders she agrees the district’s financial problems are dire but said the board needs to find another way to save money.

"I know we want to put the brakes on it, but what happens when we run out of money," she asked the board. "Does the state department take our schools? Do we stop getting paychecks? Do I have to start bringing my own toilet paper?"

The largest proposed change would involve reducing classes to four times per week. But school officials said they weren't ready to decide on any of cost-cutting plans before eventually tabling those plans and others. 

Board member Frank Aguillard said the board should strike down the superintendent's proposal to close schools, noting he worries employees and students will be "in disarray" and look to move if no action happens soon.

"We are affecting people’s lives here," he said. "We can't kick the can down the road and not tell these people."

Aguillard said after the meeting he was unsure if he had the votes from fellow board members to kill the proposal to close schools. 

Board member Anita LeJeune echoed those points before criticizing Superintendent Kim Canezaro for not telling board members about the proposal until earlier this month.

A handful of Louisiana schools, including districts in East Feliciana, Avoyelles and Caldwell parishes, operate under a four-day week. 

The state Department of Education doesn't track the number of schools that have a reduced school week and leaves that decision to local systems. Schools that use shorter weeks often have longer school days to meet state instruction time requirements.

Supporters of the shortened week say it can help shed costs for busing students, especially in sprawling rural areas, and cut on utility costs. 

National studies on shortened school weeks have shown mixed results. 

A 2015 study by researchers in Colorado found a slight increase in math scores, while an earlier study in Arkansas saw no difference in academic performance. Researchers at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo in 2016 observed an increase in youth crime, notably a 75% rise in arrests for property crimes.

The proposed spending cuts would reduce the school's budget shortfall only to $715,915 next year, according to district estimates.

Voters last fall approved extending the current property tax amid worries that failing to do so would lead to significant teacher layoffs and the shuttering of up to half of the parish's schools. But with the lost tax revenue following the closure of a barge operator and rising transportation costs, the district also needs to raise more money to balance its budget. 

Taking no action on cutting costs or finding new revenue streams would see the district's budget deficit balloon to more than $1.5 million next year.  

The school board is considering a 9-mill property tax hike to boost teacher salaries and pay for transportation costs, which accounts for the district's second-highest expense.

Though teachers in Pointe Coupee earn slightly more than the state average, the district is surrounded by systems with higher pay scales. Pointe Coupee sees about 40 teachers leave each year, mostly for similar jobs in other school districts. 

The proposed tax hike would boost administrators' and teachers' yearly salaries by $7,000. New teachers in Pointe Coupee earn about $39,000 a year, compared to $49,000 in West Baton Rouge and more than $50,000 for teachers in Iberville Parish.

School officials will meet on Feb. 12 to finalize how they plan to seek a tax hike that would appear on the May 9 ballot. 

The board will also revisit its plans to close schools and reduce the school week at that meeting. 

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.