desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

Pointe Coupee Parish school leaders say they could be forced to close up to half the parish's campuses and lay off a significant number of teachers if a longstanding tax up for renewal Saturday fails. 

The 11.96-mill property tax up for renewal generates $5.6 million and accounts for a quarter of the school system's operating budget, which includes everything from paying teachers to keeping the lights on.

Although there doesn't appears to be any organized effort to strike down the tax renewal, school officials have expressed worries it could spell financial disaster for schools should it fail.

“If this doesn’t pass, it will be devastating to the school district,” Superintendent Kim Canezaro said. “We’re really hoping the people realize the importance of it are the ones that vote yes.”

At worse, the school district would have to make steep cuts to make up for the millions of dollars in lost revenue. Canezaro said the district likely would have to shut down three of its six campuses and slash jobs across the board.

The impacts for students could come in the form of much larger classrooms and less individual instruction, she said.

"It will affect student achievement,” Canezaro said. “A vote no is a vote no to what we can provide to them."

School leaders have stressed that the millage is not a new tax but rather renewal of the existing property tax. The millage has stood at the same rate since the late-1970s and has been renewed every decade.

The parish, as well as the school district, expects less money from property taxes even if the millage renewal passes. That's because two barge companies closed their operations in the past two years, leaving a roughly $1.3 million funding gap to solve.

It’s among the factors that have compounded the school district’s financial anxieties.

The district is already grappling with a budget shortfall this year, as well as the perennial struggle to attract and keep teachers. The system sees about 40 teachers leave each year, mostly for other school districts.

Though the district offers teacher salaries that are above the state average, it's surrounded by neighboring parishes that pay more and receive more funding through taxes. West Baton Rouge, for example, approved a $90 million bond and a small tax hike in 2016 to build a new school high school, give teachers raises and upgrade its campuses.

Ahead of this school year, the Pointe Coupee School Board faced a $1.2 million deficit. Administrators cut staff system-wide and trimmed transportation costs to skirt teacher layoffs.

If voters shoot down the millage renewal, officials have the option to add it to a local election ballot next year. But doing so during a non-state election would cost the district at least $25,000.

The rate would automatically revert to a 4.5-mill rate, which would go into effect in 2021.

Canezaro said the default rate is simply not enough to fund the system.

"You just can't run a school system on that,” she said. "It's basic mathematics."

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.