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NEW ROADS — School leaders in Pointe Coupee Parish plan to ask voters to weigh in on a property tax hike to pay for teacher raises and help bridge a gaping budget shortfall.

The school system is facing a $1.5 million budget shortfall and is scrambling to come up with ways to cut costs and draw more money. But proposals to trim spending, including shuttering two elementary schools and expanding another, have proved to be unpopular among parents, teachers and residents who say the money should come from somewhere else.

Schools officials held public comments Tuesday evening on how they can win over voters heading to the ballot booth in May. Many who spoke said they support an increase to help fund schools, and cautioned school leaders that failing to do so could spell financial disaster.

The parish has some of the lowest property tax rates in the Baton Rouge-area, and they’ve remained at 11.97 mills since the 1970s.

Brook Benoit, a Pointe Coupee resident, told the school board she was shocked to find how low her property taxes are and wouldn't mind paying more.

“I would gladly pay double that if it meant a child had a shot at a quality education," she said.

Tuesday's meeting came two weeks after a tense meeting during which officials unveiled a slew of proposed cuts that were met with steep opposition. They included closing Upper Pointe Coupee and Close Rougon elementary schools, expanding Livonia High School to cover sixth through 12th grades, moving an alternative learning program to the Rosenwald Elementary campus and shortening the school week to four days.

The proposals appeared on the school board's agenda Tuesday, but members took no action on them.

Pointe Coupee schools have for years grappled with a revolving door of teachers, who often leave for similar jobs in neighboring parishes that pay higher salaries.

Elisa Baben, a first grade teacher at Rougon Elementary, has been teaching in the district for 25 years. With her experience, she says, she has been approached by other school districts wanting to bring on a veteran teacher.

“I could drive literally five minutes farther and make $8,000 more,” she said. “But I choose to stay.”

Though teachers in Pointe Coupee earn slightly more than the state average, the district is surrounded by school systems that pay teachers more. It's led to an exodus of about 40 teachers each year and has been a perennial challenge to attract their replacements. Many of Baben's peers are young teachers in their 20s.

Still, the specter of possible school closures and other significant cutbacks remains if the board doesn't win over voters.

With no exact millage rate established, school officials are also pressed against the clock. They have until Feb. 12 to iron out their plans if they want a tax proposal on voters' ballots in May.

The school system sustained a more than $1.7 million loss in state payments from the Minimum Foundation Program, which calculates the minimum cost it takes to educate a student and is based on district enrollment.

A recent state audit cites low enrollment and increases in local tax revenue for the decline in state money. District enrollment dropped from 3,142 students in 2014 to 2,884 students this year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

There's a chance the school district could lose some state money if enrollment continues to shrink and property taxes go up. One scenario, for example, would see the school district lose $260,000 if enrollment shrinks by 50 students. A growth of about 25 students would mean the school would gain $130,000 in MFP funds.

Delaney Lee Jr., 31, a native and resident of Pointe Coupee, pointed to other school districts that have higher property tax rates.

West Baton Rouge voters, for example, approved a $90 million bond and a small tax hike in 2016 to build a new school high school, give teachers raises and upgrade its campuses.

“Those people are putting in money into their school system,” Lee said.

School officials will meet on Feb. 12 to finalize how they plan to seek a tax hike.

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