Hundreds of East Baton Rouge school employees voted Tuesday night to walk out of work on Oct. 31. Instead of going to their schools, the employees plan to head downtown to the LaSalle Building to protest against industrial property tax exemptions.
The one-day strike is being sparked by opposition to requests by ExxonMobil to obtain an exemption from millions of dollars in local property taxes. The energy giant has four requests it has applied for under new rules for the state’s decades-old Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, that are set to come before the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry.
The vote to walk, 445-6, was taken after several school employee groups gathered at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. No administrators were involved in the vote.
East Baton Rouge Parish public schools have almost 6,000 employees, of which about 3,200 are teachers, and about 41,000 students.
School administrators and news media were barred from attending the meeting, with the media allowed in afterwards.
“In extraordinary times, ordinary people must rise to the occasion and do extraordinary things. That’s what we’re doing tonight,” said Crystal Williams-Gordon, a science teacher at Broadmoor High, reading from a statement.
Angela Reams-Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said the meeting attracted a cross-section of school employees.
“It was not just teachers,” she said. “We had support from every group of employees across the district.”
Gretchen Lampe, with the Louisiana Association of Educators, said the desire for higher employee pay is only part of the picture.
“People don’t have have what they need to have to do their jobs,” Lampe said.
Public school employees in Baton Rouge haven’t had an across-the-board pay raise since 2008.
“Teachers would like to be compensated for what we do,” said teacher Patricia Onyejekwe, explaining why she voted with her coworkers for the walkout. “We put a lot of love and craft into what we do.”
Besides better pay, employee groups are also calling for smaller class sizes, better technology, new school buses, updated school buildings and early childhood education.
They joined forces with the faith-based group Together Baton Rouge, which has spent years railing against the ITEP program. The idea is to use the savings from rejecting ITEP requests to better fund public education.
ExxonMobil has thus far applied for five exemptions under the new state ITEP rules.
ExxonMobil cleared another obstacle Wednesday night in its effort to secure a multi-million-dollar property tax break for a proposed expansion…
The first one, supporting a proposed expansion of the company’s polyolefins plant in Baton Rouge, had broad support, and it was granted first by the state and then local taxing authorities.
The four that are yet to be ruled on are more controversial. They involve work completed months ago on four of the company’s facilities in Baton Rouge, work that critics argue the company would have had to done anyway and thus do not merit tax exemptions.
The Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry is expected to consider these four remaining exemptions in the near future, but it’s not clear when. The state board’s next scheduled meeting is Oct. 31, a meeting for which no agenda has yet been posted.
Lampe said that if that state board does not take up the ExxonMobil requests on Oct. 31, employees will have to reconsider having a walkout that day. She said the employees who voted Tuesday are prepared to walk out on other days if necessary.
If the state board approves the ExxonMobil requests, the parish School Board, Metro Council and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux would have up to 60 days to consider whether to say yea or nay to the portion of the property tax that applies to them.
The outstanding exemption requests cover $152 million worth of property, which ExxonMobil has noted is just part of $269 million in total investment the corporate giant has made in Baton Rouge.
In a statement Tuesday night, ExxonMobil spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile said "the actual tax revenue far exceeds the abatement.”
“Out of the total 2017 investment, we anticipate to generate new property tax revenue of $7.9 million over 10 years, $15.2 million over 20 years, and $20.6 million over 30 years,” Cargile has said previously.
Cargile has said those projects were completed not in March 2017 but in late 2017.
ExxonMobil is retaining 2,500 direct jobs with its 207 ITEP-eligible projects as well as spurring the hiring of 3,000 private contractors, she has said.
Earlier this year, educators in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia held statewide strikes, successfully prodding lawmakers for pay raises. School staff in Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina have staged smaller-scale protests.
In Louisiana, East Baton Rouge Parish so far has come the closest to seeing similar protests. Rumors of an employee walkout on May 22, the last day of the 2017-18 school year, flourished for more than a week in mid-May. Employee groups finally publicly disavowed the idea, but stuck with a public pressure campaign that led to the board adding $4.3 million to the district’s salary formula in June.
East Baton Rouge Parish school employees won a modest pay increase last month without having to resort to walkouts like those seen nationwide,…
The added money was a first step, but was aimed largely at restoring pay that employees had lost out on during three salary freezes as well as during five years when the school system stopped matching an employees’ years of experience with their step on the salary schedule.
The next hurdle, finding more money for broader pay raises, won’t be easy as the school system dips heavily into its reserves to avoid red ink.
This is not the first time these groups have sought to block these ExxonMobil exemption requests.
In August, as the school year started, six education groups and Together Baton Rouge gathered in front the School Board office to urge ExxonMobil to withdraw all four exemption requests.
Schools Superintendent Warren Drake, in a written statement issued after Tuesday's employee vote, said: "We are so blessed to have some of the most passionate and hard working teachers and staff in the country. Our teachers are committed to their students and understand the pivotal role they play each and every day. We work and live by our motto: One Team, One Mission."