BESE vote

Louisiana's top school board Tuesday, May 7, 2019, opted to stick with its earlier request for a $39 million increase for public schools.

Rebuffing House leaders, Louisiana's top school board Tuesday opted to stick with its earlier request for a $39 million increase for public schools.

"The consensus of the (education) groups across the state is that we stay where we are," said Gary Jones, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

State lawmakers can accept or reject BESE's request but cannot change it.

Last month the House Education Committee voted to return a $3.85 billion school funding proposal to BESE, and for panel remove the $39 million request.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette and others said the school aid portion of the request could end up killing the $1,000 teacher pay raises included in the same package as well as $500 hikes for school support workers.

But BESE, after hearing a parade of public school leaders who urged the panel to stay with its March proposal, did just that.

No vote was taken, and none was required for BESE to stand by its previous request to the Legislature.

Those behind BESE's proposal included the office of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has made the $1,000 raises the key part of his 2019 legislative agenda, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators, Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association. 

"Hold firm to this resolution," said Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents. "Show the people in public education that you support them."

Backers noted that public schools have landed only one general increase in the past decade and districts are grappling with rising costs of health insurance, retirement, workers compensation and Medicare.

Jones, who lives near Alexandria, said there is a disturbing trend of cash-strapped school districts converting to four-day weeks.

"I don't think people or districts make that choice because they have any other choice," said Jones, a former superintendent himself.

BESE's proposal mirrors the governor's plan – $1,000 teacher pay raises, $500 hikes for support workers and a $39 million increase in state aid for public schools – $140 million per year.

The Senate Education Committee endorsed the same proposal last week 6-1.

If it wins Senate approval the legislation would force House leaders to decide whether to back off their earlier demands, try to strike a compromise before adjournment on June 6 or let the plan die, leaving the current funding level in place.

If that happens, the Legislature could still approve teacher and support worker pay raises but they would amount to one-year stipends.

"We don't want a one and done," said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators who urged BESE to hold its ground.

The $39 million increase amounts to 1.375 percent.

It is part of a $3.85 billion funding package for the 2019-20 school year.

The money is parceled through a formula called the Minimum Foundation Program.

Jones asked teacher union and other leaders whether they are willing to risk BESE's proposal dying in the Legislature, and any pay raises limited to one year only.

Each one said they would take that risk.

House and Senate leaders and the governor could reach agreement on a new funding plan, then ask BESE to submit a new proposal that mirrors the agreement.

Jones said the board may be forced to hold a second special meeting and noted that, in previous years, school funding has come down to the final hours of the session.

Landry was not bothered by BESE's latest stance.

"I think a wait and see approach right now is probably a good move," she said.

On Monday the powerful House Appropriations voted 3-17 against a bid to add the $39 million boost to the $30 billion operating budget, which will be debated by the House on Thursday.

Instead, the panel approved pay raises of $1,200 for teachers and $600 for cafeteria workers, school bus drivers and others.

Jim Garvey, a BESE member who lives in Metairie, questioned Edwards' aide Donald Songy on how the state can afford teacher pay raises and a $39 million increase for public schools.

Garvey noted that new dollars for state spending – $119 million – are $19 million below earlier estimates.

"It is a large number of very small cuts throughout the entire budget," Songy said of how the increase for schools would be funded.

Public school teachers in Louisiana are paid an average of $50,000 per year.

Support workers average less than $23,000 annually, officials said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.