School stock

Despite new concerns about Louisiana's financial outlook, Louisiana's top school board Tuesday asked the Legislature to boost state aid for public schools by $80 million.

Under the plan, half of the money would be allocated to school districts. The other half would have to be used to boost teacher pay in districts whose salaries are below the $52,718 regional average set by the Southern Regional Education Board.

A total of 50 of the state's 69 school districts fall below that benchmark, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education.

The BESE proposal is double the size of Gov. John Bel Edwards' recommendation, which is a $39 million increase and solely for teacher pay raises of about $500 per year.

"We believe it is time to push the governor and the Legislature," said Caroline Roemer, president of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, one of several groups that backed BESE's request.

The Legislature, which began its nearly three-month session Monday, can only accept or reject the request but cannot change it.

If the plan is rejected by state lawmakers BESE can send a new one before adjournment on June 1.

As often happens, panel members wondered aloud whether their plan would win approval.

"I don't want to send something to the Legislature that is not going to be accepted," said BESE member Preston Castille, who lives in Baton Rouge and made the motion that won approval.

State Superintendent of Education John White said that, while the request mirrors the governor's in some ways, the sudden drop in oil prices linked to Louisiana's economy and other yellow flags are worth watching. The plunge in oil prices, without a rebound, could cause revisions in how much money the Legislature has to spend, including for public schools.

"The one thing I would suggest is we are in very volatile economic times," White told the board.

Doris Voitier, one of the governor's three appointees on BESE and veteran superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish School District, backed the request but also noted that the funding outlook for schools could change because of oil prices.

The Revenue Estimating Conference, which sets the state's revenue outlook, is expected to meet again in early April.

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The $80 million request was backed by the Louisiana School Boards Association, Democrats for Education Reform and the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana.

Local leaders say districts badly need the money to offset increased costs for health insurance and retirement, and especially since there have only been two such state funding hikes in the past 12 years. The leaders of the state's two teacher unions were less enthusiastic.

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said while the request offers a pathway to better pay teachers "need a whole lot more than is being proposed." 

Mills noted that legislatures in Texas, Florida and Georgia have boosted salaries by up to $9,000 per year in recent months. "If we don't keep pace we will never keep up with that average," she told BESE members.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, complained that none of the pay raises include school support workers.

Last year the Legislature approved $1,000 pay raises for teachers and $500 for support workers.

The latest comparisons available – 2017-18 – show that average teacher pay in Louisiana is about $1,800 below the regional average.

BESE's proposal mirrors the one made on Feb. 20 by a task force that advises the board.

The $80 million would represent a 2.75% boost in state aid for public schools, which used to be the traditional yearly increase before the state began experiencing financial problems around 2008.

Under the plan, school districts whose teachers are paid more 16-state regional average would enjoy discretion on how to use all the money.

That list includes the East Baton Rouge, St. Charles, St. Tammany, West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Ascension school districts.

The request Tuesday was technically made by a committee of the state school board. However, all 11 members were on hand and final approval by the board is all but certain on Wednesday.

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