Warren Drake stock

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

A month later than normal, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday unanimously approved a general operating budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year that eliminates almost 300 jobs, a third of them from the classroom

The $454.8 million budget, which has gone through two substantial revisions in the past two months, cuts 3.3 percent in spending. In addition to job cuts, the budget includes less spending on textbooks and transportation.

The fiscal year began July 1. The board normally approves the budget ahead of the new fiscal year at its regular meeting in June. The general fund accounts for about three-quarters of all school spending each year.

The final vote on Thursday was 8-0. Board member David Tatman was absent.

Board President Mike Gaudet, who took over as president in January, had mapped out a longer budget process than in the past. He was initially dissatisfied with the original proposed general fund budget, released May 22, since it called for spending $7.1 million more than the school system was expecting to take in.

On June 16, the finance office released a second version, this time with a small surplus. Crucial to reaching a balanced budget was the state budget deal reached on June 6. That deal is adding $8.1 million to the local school system's state revenue. The bulk of that added money is funding $1,000 teacher pay raises as well as $500 raises for support workers.

Nevertheless, Gaudet stuck with the new budget process, saying it would give the general public, and the board, more time to scrutinize the budget proposal. On Thursday, Gaudet defended the delay.

“Sometimes that was not viewed very favorably, but I think that was the right thing to do,” Gaudet said.

This week, the district’s finance office released a third version of the general operating budget and it was little changed from the second version.  It includes $454.8 million in spending in 2019-20 and estimates generating $455.1 million in revenue. The district estimates it will end 2019-20 fiscal year with $24.2 million in undesignated reserves. That’s slightly higher than the amount it expects to end the 2018-19 fiscal year with.

The latest version of the budget includes a new spending item: an extra $1 million being set aside to satisfy federal regulators that high schools are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Newly elected board members Dadrius Lanus and Tramelle Howard had repeatedly expressed discomfort with the classroom cuts, but on Thursday they voted for the budget.

Lanus said he wishes the budget had looked more closely at the school system’s facilities management contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark as well as whether certain Central Office administrative positions are needed.

“I want to make sure going forward that every single thing is on the table,” Lanus said.

Howard questioned why $1.8 million is being budgeted for a new charter school, Inspire NOLA, that has long had permission to start a school in Baton Rouge but has yet to work out a contract with the school system.

Kelly Lopez, chief finance officer, said there needs to be money in the budget in case Inspire NOLA tries to open a school mid-year.

“At this point, we have to give them our opportunity,” Lopez said.

Although most job cuts are non-instructional, the 2019-20 school year, which starts Aug. 9, will see fewer classroom personnel than last year: four fewer school librarians and 65 fewer classroom teachers, as four fewer principals and 17 fewer assistant principals.

Superintendent Warren Drake has defended the job cuts, saying that many schools were overstaffed, having failed to reduce staff in years past as enrollment declined. Enrollment at non-charter schools in the district is projected at 34,750 students, or almost 800 fewer than this past school year.

Lopez said avoiding classroom cuts where possible was the mainstay of this year’s debates: “This was stressed to principals throughout the budget process.”

Board member Jill Dyason, who had pledged to never again vote for an unbalanced budget, complimented the budget staff for their work this year.

Also helping to balance the books this year is a one-time 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 voters renewed in April 2018.

Charter school growth has been blamed for much of the school system’s financial problems over the past several years.

In 2019-20, the school system estimates it will redirect $112.9 million to charter schools. That’s $10.4 million more than 2018-19 and an increase of 10.1 percent in charter school funding. School officials have not tried to estimate any savings that results from students leaving for charters but in the past auditors have told them that such savings are likely minimal.

Costs are likely to rise again in 2020-21 when four charter schools the board approved in May open their doors. And existing charters also are expected to add more students.

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