Warren Drake stock

East Baton Rouge Schools Supt. Warren Drake takes questions outside the school board office on Oct. 24, 2018.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday decided to put off for another month deciding whether or not to approve its $457 million general operating budget, but not before hearing concerns about cuts in instructional positions and money paid to a Philadelphia-based facility management company.

The proposed budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year cuts 2.9 percent in spending by eliminating more than 200 jobs and spending less on textbooks and transportation. The proposed job cuts range from four school librarians to 65 classroom teachers. Also targeted are positions for four principals and 17 assistant principals.

Chief Financial Officer Kelly Lopez noted that 40 percent of the proposed cuts in positions come from the classroom.

“The superintendent’s directive was to keep our classroom intact,” Lopez said.

Board Vice President Tramelle Howard was not mollified.

“It still seems like most of our cuts came from the instructional piece, the people who are most in touch with students,” Howard said.

Howard also urged the school system to revisit its contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark to see if they will agree to lower their prices even more than they have already. He cited a recently completed efficiency study that found Aramark’s service levels in the district were not up to national benchmarks.

In 2017, Aramark agreed to a new facility management contract in which it pledged to charge the school system $21.9 million a year for its services, $5.3 million less than it charged previously.

Several speakers urged the board to cut even deeper from the Central Office, especially from top positions. One speaker made her criticism personal, targeting Superintendent Warren Drake by name.

“I say cut your salary, Drake, if you want to help,” said Trey Clark. “Cut your salary or just leave. You’re the CEO.”

The School Board plans to take up the budget again when it meets July 18. The board normally approves the budget in June, ahead of the new fiscal year.

Board President Mike Gaudet said the delay will give people additional time to review the budget, for which a second version was released on Tuesday. Gaudet said there may be more tinkering in the meantime.

“We still have another month to go through and refine these numbers,” Gaudet said.

Gaudet defended the staffing cuts proposed so far.

“In 2018-19, we were really overstaffed,” he said. “But did we have all that staff in the right places? I don’t know. I’m not the one to determine that.”

To ensure that employees continue to get paid in July, the board on Thursday approved salary schedules for the new fiscal year.

The general fund accounts for about three-quarters of all school spending each year.

The second version of the general fund budget, unlike the first version, is balanced, meaning it would bring in more money than it expects to spend. It’s the first time since 2012 the board is considering a balanced budget.

The state budget deal, approved June 6, is the biggest factor in creating the new balance. That deal adds $10.2 million to the local school system's revenue. Slightly over half that, $5.5 million, is funding a $1,000 teacher pay raise as well as a $500 raise for support workers. The remaining $4.7 million is available for general education purposes.

Also helping would be an infusion of $3.9 million from a separate school system fund known as Proposition 3, which supplements employee salaries and benefits. That fund is financed by half of a one-cent sales tax earmarked for education that East Baton Rouge Parish voters renewed in April 2018.

Tapping the surplus in that fund, however, won’t be an option every year. The move would shrink the surplus from almost $12 million to about $8 million.

And school system expenses are likely to rise again in 2020-21. That’s when four charter schools the board approved in May open their doors. Existing charters also are expected to add more students. Charter school growth has been blamed for much of the school system’s financial problems.

The latest budget proposal would allow the school system, the second largest in Louisiana, to maintain $24.3 million in undesignated reserves. That’s slightly higher than the amount it expects to end the current fiscal year with. The new proposal calls for spending $456.8 million in 2019-20 and estimates generating $457.2 million in revenue.

On Thursday, the board voted 5-2 to hike by 6.4 percent monthly health insurance premiums for employees, both active and retired, who use insurance provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana. The increase will take effect in January.

Board members Howard and Dadrius Lanus voted no, while board member Jill Dyason abstained and board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson did not vote.

The board took up the item when it met in May, but put off a decision for a month.

Board President Gaudet noted that the impact of the rate hike will be offset by a premium holiday in December, the month before the new rates take effect.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.