Even as a local teacher union demands a large across-the-board pay raise, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is preparing a list of millions of dollars in budget cuts.
“We are working daily to find ways we can cut,” Superintendent Warren Drake said.
School Board President David Tatman said earlier this week he’s seen projections ranging from $16 million to $18 million needed in cuts, yet Drake is reluctant to release a figure yet. He said a lot of factors are still unsettled, some that could prompt more cuts or less cuts depending on how they play out.
Drake said his senior Cabinet is meeting Monday to settle on a proposed budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“We’re going to meet for three hours and really scrub the budget,” Drake said.
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The Louisiana Association of Educators and Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based advocacy alliance, are floating a petition urging the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, when it meets Thursday, to adopt a resolution removing the parish from Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program and committing to using the extra tax money to fund an across-the-board employee pay raise — the last such pay raise was in 2008.
Together Baton Rouge has calculated that the school system, Louisiana’s second largest, is not collecting about $28 million a year in property taxes because of existing industrial property tax exemptions. That much money would fund a $4,900 pay raise for teachers and other school employees, the organization has estimated.
Tatman disputes that figure. He said any pay raise funded that way would not touch property tax exemptions already granted and would instead have to target future exemption applications that come before the board, meaning any immediate pay raise would be nowhere near $28 million.
In an email, Brod Bagert, an organizer with Together Baton Rouge, acknowledges the point, saying his organization never intended to imply that was the size of raise being sought. He said TBR has mentioned the idea of a $4,900 employee pay raise for a long time to illustrate the potential for increasing pay eventually, not as the basis for an immediate proposal.
“Nobody is suggesting that the board could approve a $28 million-a-year employee pay raise on Thursday,” Bagert said. “That's the total lost to ITEP each year, which is an accrued amount from 10 years of contracts. Actually, it's more like $30 million this year. The $4,900 figure is if we hadn't been doing exemptions at all.”
Drake is not optimistic about finding money for a pay raise by July 1.
“Nobody deserves it more than teachers and employees in the schools,” Drake said. “We’re going to look for ways to do this, but we have to get through this budget cycle first.”
Drake also said Together Baton Rouge Rouge is being “hypocritical” to demand an employee pay raise when the organization was approached three times to support the renewal of a 1-cent sales tax, part of which fund much of employees' current salaries, yet wouldn’t support it. The tax was renewed by parish voters on April 20.
"How can an organization say they want us to support teachers when they did not support the proposition to keep their pay the way it is?” Drake asked.
Bagert did not address Drake's criticism. Instead, he said Together Baton Rouge was not previously aware of the looming budget deficit, that it sympathized with how hard it is "to maintain a sound budget and provide a competitive salary for teachers and support staff," and that it is prepared to help.
"Excellent districts don't choose between those priorities," Bagert said. "They succeed on both fronts."
As required by state law, the school system's proposed General Fund budget for 2018-19 will be made available for public inspection Thursday, a bit earlier than in years past. The School Board plans to begin discussing the document, which includes about two-thirds of all spending by the school system and most day-to-day operating expenses, at a special meeting May 24. The board plans to vote on the budget sometime in June.
The biggest factors forcing cuts is an expected decline in state education funding and a sharp increase in payouts to new and expanding charter schools.
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On March 13, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended a funding formula for 2018-19 that would pay East Baton Rouge Parish schools about $10.5 million less than the schools are getting now in state funding.
A windfall in local sales tax collections after the August 2016 floods as people bought new cars and house supplies is coming back to haunt the school system. Drake said that one-time revenue is a major factor in the state’s funding formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program, to pay the school system less in 2018-19.
“That spike in sales tax has been offset since the state considers us a wealthy district,” Drake said. “I don’t think at the end of the day it will be $10.5 million but it will be a big number.”
James Crochet, chief business operations officer for the school district, said he’s been working with officials at the Louisiana Department of Education to verify their Minimum Foundation Program calculations, and he expects to know by early next week how that turns out.
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Charter schools are a cost driver yet again. Five new Type 1 charter schools set to open in August, approved by the School Board, are adding an estimated $16.8 million to the school system’s expenditure column. Charter schools are public schools run privately via contracts, or charters.
“We feel like they are good schools and we’re excited about them,” Drake said.
In one case, a proposed high school run by the New Orleans-based Inspire NOLA, it’s not clear yet if that school will open in 2018-19, Drake said.
“(Inspire NOLA) hasn’t told us, but we are going to have to assume that they are still going to open until they do,” Drake said.
Here are other spending items affecting budget deliberations:
- $8.4 million approved in January to help rebuild Glen Oaks High, which flooded in August 2016. It’s part of $23 million in work planned for the north Baton Rouge high school over the next three years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing about $7.6 million of that total, substantially less than what school officials had initially hoped.
- $1.8 million for the first year of operating costs of a new EBR Career and Technical Education Center under construction on Lobdell Boulevard and set to open in August.
- $1 million to expand and rework magnet programs at Dufrocq Elementary, Istrouma Middle and Glen Oaks High, as well as add a program at Tara High. That package of changes is being voted Thursday.