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District 3 school board member Tramelle Howard during a meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, Thursday, February 21, 2019, at the school board offices in Baton Rouge, La.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system estimates it needs to find $25.7 million in savings over the next month to avoid dipping further into its already depleted reserves.

“We’re starting off with a pretty good sized deficit,” said School Board President Mike Gaudet.

Chief Financial Officer Kelly Lopez told board members Thursday that the growing deficit is driven by a big drop in state education funding, lower-than-expected property tax revenue and rising expenses from charter schools.

Also on on Thursday, the School Board finally settled on Tramelle Howard as its vice president, ending a protracted leadership struggle that began in January. 

School officials have been talking for months about ways to cut spending. Superintendent Warren Drake has instituted 10 percent cuts in all departments, trimmed contracts and is strictly enforcing school staffing formulas, which has displaced nearly 200 teachers. The hope is that those moves, combined with not filling vacant positions, will be enough to fill the hole. But if not, Drake said he’s prepared to lay off some employees starting in late May.

The budget picture for the 2018-19 fiscal year has not helped. The revised 2018-19 general fund budget calls for the school system to end the year with $23.9 million in unassigned reserves. That's less half the amount of money in the bank than the school system started the year with. And it's $4.2 million more in reserve spending than originally budgeted.

Most years a combination of conservative budgeting, increased revenue and decreased spending comes to the rescue, but not this year. A $6.8 million decline in state per-pupil education funding in 2018-19 hit particularly hard. The bulk of that was due to a decline in the percentage of poor children in the school system, thanks to a drop in families in East Baton Rouge Parish on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Charter schools are also continuing to add to the expenditure column, a phenomenon expected to continue in 2019-20.

In another matter, the 7-0 vote Thursday night for Tramelle Howard for board vice president ended the four-month tenure of Jill Dyason in that post. The leadership fight often pitted black board members versus white board members.

Dyason, who is white, did not end up voting Thursday. Upset at the turn of events, Dyason walked out of the room when it came her time to vote. She later returned. At the end of the meeting, she congratulated Howard, who is black.

She also defended her decision to sign the City of St. George petition, a move which made her a target of anti-breakaway forces. She said she did so as a way of giving residents of the area a chance to vote on this contentious issue.

“I still believe very strongly in the right of the people,” Dyason said.

Moments before the vice president vote, Dyason had asked the board approve Howard, who is black, by acclamation rather than require all board members to vote. Fellow board member David Tatman wasn’t having it.

“I’m calling for a roll call vote,” Tatman said. “I don’t want to do it by acclamation.”

The re-vote on board vice president was part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by Baton Rouge attorney Donald Hodge. On Jan. 17 when Dyason was selected as vice president, Hodge’s comments that night were cut short when he tried to protest Dyason’s candidacy because of her signature on the St. George petition.

That revote finally occurred April 25, but the board repeatedly deadlocked with neither Mark Bellue, who is white, nor Dadrius Lanus, who is black, able to win five voters. As long as the deadlock continued, Dyason remained vice president.

Hodge threatened to go back to court if the board didn’t declare the vice president seat vacant.

The board on Thursday moved immediately to do just that, voting 6-1 to do so. Dyason voted no and fellow board member Connie Bernard abstained. Board member Dawn Collins did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

Lanus had tried three times previously to be vice president but was unable to get five votes. He said Thursday that Howard will do a great job.


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.