State education leaders are scrambling to help half a dozen rural school districts suffering from sharp drops in enrollment, financial problems and trouble recruiting teachers.
Another 15 school districts are listed by state officials in the second tier of troubles, including the City of Baker and the Assumption, East Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parish school systems.
What it means is that 21 of Louisiana's 34 rural schools districts — nearly half the state — are either experiencing a "financial crisis" or expected to do so shortly, according to a recent report by the state Department of Education. The fallout could ultimately be the responsibility of all the state's taxpayers.
The six hardest hit are expected to lose more students in the next five years, suffer from low cash reserves and have failed to meet a state requirement that 70% of its dollars go toward instruction.
"We are kind of behind the eight ball," said Ted Reeves, superintendent of the Union Parish School District in north Louisiana, one of the struggling six. Reeves' district has gradually gone from nine or 10 schools to just two amid population losses plaguing rural America.
Nearby Tensas Parish has seen its enrollment drop from over 1,000 students about two decades ago to roughly 400 today. "We agonize about spending $1,000 on anything," Tensas Parish schools Superintendent Paul Nelson said.
One of three schools was closed in Tensas, and up to 40% of the staff has been let go.
"We are down to the point where we don't have much left to cut," Nelson said.
Teachers are paid $31,000 per year — roughly $21,000 less than some other districts — and the Tensas school system has the highest percentage of uncertified teachers in the state.
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"In a poor, rural district that has no Subway, no Pizza Hut, no Sonic, you don't have the opportunity for much sales tax or, for that matter, property tax," Nelson said. "Most of what we have is farmland, and farmland is not assessed very high."
Others listed as having the greatest risks are the Madison, Catahoula, East Carroll and Morehouse parish school districts — all in north Louisiana. The six districts reeling the most have less than 9,300 students of about 720,000 statewide.
But advocates say the issue has statewide implications, including the fact that already-wobbly school systems in south Louisiana could nose-dive amid disruptions in the oil industry or other setbacks.
All 15 school districts in the second tier of problems are expected to lose students in the next five years and suffer from low cash balances.
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State Superintendent of Education John White said the issues require urgent state intervention, and he has been meeting with local superintendents to trade ideas.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education may tackle the issue at its meeting on March 10-11.
Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said one idea is short-term financial aid from the state, similar to the $7.5 million provided to the East Baton Rouge Parish, Livingston Parish and other schools districts after the flood of 2016.
"It is a matter of working with the superintendents, the finance people, and the school board members to really look in depth at what is happening, what they are doing and what they can be doing," he said.
Faulk, former superintendent of the Central School District, said the issue also points up the fallout from state aid for public schools rising only two times in the past 12 years.
Some of the six districts have seen drops in property tax revenue in the past three years and expect more declines in the next 36 months. Drops in sales tax revenue that helps support schools are also a recurring theme.
The schools crisis is an offshoot of larger problems in rural Louisiana that prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards to form a task force last month to try to come up with answers.
The trouble has been percolating for years.
"It is not new to us," said state Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, who will start his 45th year in the Legislature on March 9.
Thompson said teachers are hard to find because of driving distances.
Private and parochial schools help trim public school enrollment.
Economic development is lagging.
"This is a trend that is nationwide," Thompson noted. "It is not just Louisiana."
The state Department of Education recently submitted its report on the districts to the House Education Committee in response to a 2019 resolution sponsored by Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro.
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"If we don't financially address it now and work together to come up with reasonable legislation, then inevitably the state will pay for these school systems," McFarland said.
The report said other states have set up "support centers" that allow struggling districts to share costs, especially for bulk items.
The governing board could include one or two school board members from each school system taking part.
Catahoula Parish School District Superintendent Ronald Lofton, which closed a school this year, said his district is 70 miles from north to south.
"Whether you haul 20 kids on the bus or 50 you still have the same costs associated with it," Lofton said.
The district has about 1,100 students, down from 2,500 not long ago.
Some students graduate from high school and leave the parish for good. "There is no opportunity for a job unless you are in education," Lofton said.
Much was made in last fall’s campaign of a U.S. News & World Report ranking that named Louisiana as the worst state in the nation.