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East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent Warren Drake speaks during a school board swearing in ceremony, Tuesday, January 8, 2019, at McKinley Middle Magnet in Baton Rouge, La.

ST. FRANCISVILLE — East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members attending a two-day retreat were presented with $21.3 million in potential budget cuts on Friday, including steep reductions in staff at schools throughout the parish and other rough ideas for saving even more money.

“None of this is set in stone,” emphasized Superintendent Warren Drake. “This is brainstorming. I want to make that perfectly clear.”

As part of the day's brainstorming, the board took a step toward developing a new set of core values and priorities for the district. The nine board members jotted down phrases such as “opportunity,” “driving more resources to the classroom,” “equity not equality,” “quality neighborhood schools” and “inspiring hope.”

Facilitators Christel Slaughter and Rudy Gomez from SSA Consultants of Baton Rouge were on hand to help. They plan to take the dozens of suggestions and help the board shape them into a short set of beliefs.

“We will have to take some time to make this meaningful,” Board President Mike Gaudet said afterward.

St. Francisville resort will host East Baton Rouge School Board as it updates priorities

The retreat, which concludes at noon Saturday, is being held in a meeting room at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, a golf resort east of St. Francisville. The out-of parish retreat, which may become an annual affair, is meant to kick off the four-year terms of office for board members. The board has seven returning and two newly elected members.

Saturday’s agenda calls for discussions of student achievement, marketing schools, and customer service. No votes are being taken.

Friday’s discussion, largely optimistic, ended on a more-somber note as the board delved into its budget. It was not a pretty picture. James Crochet, chief business operations officer, informed the board that over the current year’s picture has gotten worse.

The school system was already planning to dip into its reserves to fund its general operations in fiscal year 2018-19, which ends June 30. Its year-end reserves are now expected to decline from $70.9 to $42.2 million. That’s $3.4 million more in reserve spending than anticipated when the board approved its general fund budget in June. If current trends continue, those reserves are projected to shrink even more a year later, to just $13.1 million.

The general fund covers about 70 percent of all spending in the system and is the go-to source of funding for emergency or unexpected spending. Last fiscal year, it totaled $646 million.

Crochet attributed some of the current year financial problems to declining enrollment at many schools, which led to a $4.2 million decrease in state funding based on enrollment.

In the fall, Drake announced he was looking for ways to save between $30 million and $40 million in advance of the 2019-2020 fiscal year. When he presented his $21.3 million in “efficiency options” Friday, he presented them just as ideas, ones the board can agree to or set aside. Two options would, by far, save the most money:

  • an 8 percent cut in school staff would save an estimated $14.4 million a year.
  • a 10 percent cut in Central Office staff would save an estimated $3.7 million a year.

Other prominent savings could come from trimming existing contracts, $1 million; reducing the payout for employee life insurance policies, $700,000; and increasing deductibles for employee health insurance, $500,000.

Newly elected board members Tramelle Howard and Dadrius Lanus were uneasy with the proposed cuts in school staff.

“We’re literally taking money out of schools,” Howard said. “That worries me just looking at it.”

“For the record, this really, really worries me,” Lanus said, “because many of these schools cannot afford to take any cuts in staff.”

Drake defended the proposals.

“This was vetted by 15 principals who said they could do this,” he said.

Gaudet said a proposed 8 percent reduction in staff may not necessitate layoffs, noting that the school system has a lot of employee turnover every year.

“We are not talking about (reductions in force) right now, or anything like that,” Gaudet said. “A lot of this will happen through attrition.”

A couple of board members suggest limiting staffing cuts at the schools most in need of improvement.

“With some of our D and F schools, we need to be really careful with those as we make cuts,” Gaudet said.

Another difficulty in cutting staff is that enrollment declines often are too small at a given school to allow for eliminating teachers.

Associate Superintendent Ben Necaise presented a recent report showing 1,088 students who transferred to district-sponsored charter schools this year, but the highest number of transfers out was at Glen Oaks Park Elementary, which lost 41 students. Most schools that lost students, lost around 20.

“What we’re seeing is we basically lost 1,000 students, but we can’t lose 1,000 students worth of teachers because there’s just a sprinkle,” Necaise said.

Drake also mentioned other proposals that could save money, but he did not estimate what those savings might generate: school budget autonomy, already approved school changes/consolidations, outsourcing, an ongoing efficiency study of the school district, consolidation of administrative sites and changes to the salary schedule.

Drake talked about consolidating 12 administrative sites by renting just one place instead. He said there are several buildings on Florida Boulevard he’s looked at but has yet to settle on a locale. He said such a consolidation could also allow for a modest reduction in administrative staff.

“We’ve got to find a space that is in a good location, that is accessible to everyone in the parish and that is in pretty good shape,” he explained.

As far as the employee salary schedule, Drake threw out the idea of reducing the number of years on the schedule from 40 to 25 years and use the money that now goes to veteran teachers to increase salaries for newer teachers.

"Take that back-end money and front-end it,” he said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.