With little debate, the East Baton Rouge School Board on Thursday approved an almost $452 million general operating budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
School officials have trimmed about $15 million in expenses, including cutting dozens of teaching positions, particularly in middle schools.
The final vote on the 350-page document was 7-0. Board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith left the meeting early and Evelyn Ware-Jackson stepped out of the room.
Also Thursday, the board agreed to hold off until July consideration of a proposed increase to health insurance premiums for all active employees and retirees by an average of 7.7 percent, amid questions about how it would affect some retirees. Premium increases would range from $5.86 more a month for active employees in the school system’s bare bones Core Plan to $76.24 more each month for certain retirees with families who participate in the more generous Buy Up Plan. The increases, if approved, would take effect Jan. 1.
The general operating budget, which takes effect July 1, calls for spending less and raising more money than last year’s budget. But just as that budget was out of balance and relied on drawing down financial reserves, so does this one. Reserves, currently about $42 million, are to shrink to an estimated $28.1 million a year from now.
School Board President Barbara Freiberg noted the school’s overall reserves, often referred to as a fund balance, are still healthy, but spending and revenue need to be better aligned.
“We are above what is considered good for our fund balance, but we can’t stay there,” Freiberg said.
School Board member Connie Bernard had similar sentiments.
“We really have to correct our spending,” Bernard said.
The school system’s general fund accounts for 70 percent of the more than $600 million the school system spends each year. The general fund is the system’s primary source of unrestricted money to pay for operating expenses, to finance new initiatives or to cover emergencies. Since 2010, the school system has cut the budget annually because of a mix of tight state funding, a variety of expenses and growing competition from charter schools.
The proposed 2016-17 general fund budget is the first Superintendent Warren Drake has had full control over. It cements in place a variety of changes Drake made in his first year, including the elimination of a number of Central Office positions. The document calls for spending $451.7 million while raising just $434.7 million in taxes and other revenue. Drake said he hopes to get out of this deficit-spending cycle in another year or two.
The proposed cuts total roughly $15 million overall. Nearly half of the savings, about $7 million, stem from a new staffing formula going into effect this fall. The formula leaves elementary and high schools relatively unscathed, but middle schools would have about 52 fewer teachers this fall, and students in those grades will face larger class sizes. The total number of instructional coaches at all schools will shrink from 51 to just 12.
The cuts, however, are not enough to offset spending elsewhere, notably $6.8 million going to educate hundreds of additional children at charter schools in Baton Rouge. More than half of the expansion comes from Type 1 charter schools — those under contract with the school system. The rest comes from schools chartered by the state. These include two new schools, Laurel Oaks Charter and Apex Collegiate Academy, which are opening this fall despite local objections.