Karla Jack

Assistant Pointe Coupee Parish Schools Superintended Karla Jack speaks during a Feb. 12, 2020, meeting on a proposed property tax increase to help solve a $1,5 million budget deficit. “We can’t keep kicking the can," she said.

NEW ROADS — School leaders in Pointe Coupee Parish will ask voters this spring to increase property taxes with the hope of paying its public school teachers more and bridge a significant budget shortfall that, if it worsens, could shutter schools.

The School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to place a 9.5-mill increase on the May 9 ballot. Officials and supporters say the money is needed to address an estimated $1.5 million budget shortfall and keep teachers from leaving the school district for better pay in neighboring parishes.

Pointe Coupee property taxes are among the lowest in the Baton Rouge area, and haven't budged in a half-century from the 11.97 millage that benefits schools. In fact, the parish's overall 53.5 millage rate is the fourth-lowest in the state behind Rapides, St. Landry, and East Feliciana Parish, according to the Louisiana Tax Commission.

“People in Pointe Coupee pay more for Netflix than they do in property taxes,” said Lacey Morel Bueche, chief program administrator of the STEM Magnet Academy.

The proposed increase would raise roughly $4.5 million a year, with nearly half going toward a $6,000 pay raise for teachers, as well a smaller pay bump for support staffers. Other portions will address the cost of transporting students and for some school building improvements.

“It’s going to help us with the deficit. We’re going to fill that hole and move ahead,” Superintendent Kim Canezaro said.

But raising property taxes has historically been an uphill battle in Pointe Coupee Parish, and some Wednesday night questioned whether officials will be able to win over voters without showing improvements to schools.

In 2016, the district sought a 10-mill increase that narrowly failed, as well as other efforts that fell short in the past decade for other parish agencies.

"We have a lot going for us now," said School Board Member Jason Lemoint, who pointed to enrollment growth and support of the district’s STEM Magnet Academy, as well as the dire consequences potentially in store if it fails.

In recent weeks, school officials and the committees they formed to look into the district's finances have been scrambling to come up with ways to cut costs and draw more money.

Proposals to slash spending — including shuttering two elementary schools and expanding another — have been met with fierce opposition among parents, teachers and residents who say the money should come from somewhere else.

Canezaro said the fate of those cuts rests largely on whether voters approve the tax increase. They include shuttering Upper Pointe Coupee and Close Rougon elementary schools, expanding Livonia High School, and moving an alternative learning program to Rosenwald Elementary’s campus. The district has also looked at adopting a four-day school week and closing campuses on Mondays.

The school suffered a $1.7 million loss from the state's Minimum Foundation Program, which calculates the minimum cost it takes to educate a student and is based heavily on district enrollment.

But for Pointe Coupee, the state doled out less money because it saw untapped money through local taxes and noted a roughly 100-student enrollment decline in the past two years.

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

“There’s a good chance it will not pass if we ask for too high of a millage,” said Board Member Anita LeJune. “I just think our teachers are worth it. They need that $6,000 raise.”

The salary for a starting teacher in West Baton Rouge is about $49,000 and in Iberville $51,000, compared to first-year teachers in Pointe Coupee schools who earn just more than $39,000.

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, often for similar teaching jobs nearby.

“North Iberville (Elementary School) is 10 miles away. That’s $1,000 more per mile,” Bueche said. “A teacher isn’t going to drive the opposite way to lose $10,000 a year.”

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.