desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Property owners in East Baton Rouge are likely to get a tax break for the second year in a row after the parish school system again missed a chance to restore tax rates to their maximum authorized level.

Last year, the rates were lowered because of a mistake by the parish school board, resulting in what’s known as a “rollback.” This year, new Superintendent Sito Narcisse effectively decided to keep rates at the rolled-back level, taking the matter out of the board’s hands.

If Narcisse’s decision stands, school property tax rates in the parish will remain at 41.25 mills in 2021, rather than returning to 43.45 mills as they’d been for decades. That would continue a $15 break for a home assessed at $150,000 and a $35 break for one assessed at $250,000. Under Louisiana’s homestead exemption, the first $75,000 in value remains untaxed.

District tax revenue, however, would shrink as well by an estimated $9.2 million. Over a two-year period, that adds up to more than $18 million in lost education funding.

The school system has until 2024 to restore rates to 43.45 mills, to “roll forward” — or the lower 41.25 millage rate will be locked in for good. A “roll forward” requires a two-thirds vote of the school board to pass.

Opponents of rolling forward millages paint the move as an undemocratic tax hike, arguing that millage rates should only roll forward after a vote of the people. Supporters of "roll forwards" say they rightly take advantage of local economic growth and serve as a fiscally responsible way to ensure stable funding for the ever-increasing cost of public services.

The pandemic has only intensified that debate.

Opponents of the move say keeping millage rates low makes even more sense these days by lessening hardship on taxpayers. Supporters of roll-forwards, on the other hand, call them even more vital during economic downturns because of the way they sustain public services.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has traditionally opted to roll forward — at least until last year.

In September, then-Superintendent Leslie Brown, like her predecessors, sought a roll-forward. The current board, however, was divided. Unable to clarify a key legal question, the board voted to delay a month — a fateful decision that inadvertently killed any chance of a roll-forward in 2020.

It looked at first like school administrators would resume the push this year.

A public notice appeared in The Advocate in early February calling for a hearing on a roll-forward proposal to be held on March 18. That hearing never happened; Narcisse chose to leave the item off the agenda.

Instead, a month later, the superintendent gave the board just one option: keep rates at the rolled-back level.

On Thursday, the board voted 8-0 to do just that; board member Connie Bernard was absent. Neither Narcisse nor his staff explained that night why the school district was no longer pursuing a roll-forward as it had in years past.

The Advocate emailed Narcisse Friday seeking an explanation, prompting a written statement from district spokeswoman Taylor Gast.

“Due to the receipt of the CARES and COVID-19 relief funding, the decision was made to forego the roll-forward millage for the 2021 tax roll,” she wrote. “However, we anticipate that we will bring the roll-forward back to the board in March (2022) for the 2022 tax roll. Dr. Narcisse is very mindful of the challenges and hardships the families of East Baton Rouge Parish have endured over the past year.”

The funding Gast referred to is quite substantial. The district got $18 million last year from this funding stream and is set to receive another $210 million through next year.

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It's all short-lived, however. It’s one-time money the district has up to three years to spend.

As superintendent, Narcisse draws up the initial agendas for board meetings. Board President David Tatman has final approval.

Tatman said he recalls being surprised that Narcisse wouldn't hold the March hearing — but he let it go.

“I didn’t object to it,” he said. “I followed his lead on that.”

Tatman said he considers votes on millage the province of the district's elected leaders.

“I think the board should always make a decision on whether to roll forward or not,” he said.

Board Vice President Dawn Collins said she was unaware of the planned March hearing and is unhappy about Narcisse calling it off.

“That decision should have been for the full body of the board to decide, not the superintendent,” Collins said. “We are the ones responsible for the health of the budget.”

It’s not too late to roll forward this year, though the school district would have to work on a tight deadline.

“They still have time to do it,” parish tax assessor Brian Wilson said Friday.

Wilson’s office sets a deadline of June 1 to finalize the assessment rolls, but he said there's some wiggle room.

“We have leeway there,” Wilson said.

Narcisse’s decision to table the roll-forward came as a surprise for another reason. 

A district audit commissioned by Narcisse and released in February urged a different path. In that audit, called a “Transition Report,” outside consultants criticized the board for failing to roll forward millages last year.

“Whether this was a result of administrative error or board inactivity, the result is the same,” the report stated. “While the consultants recognize that taxpayers are suffering economically, the rolling forward would not increase the millage and the economic impact on the parish’s poorest residents is very unlikely to be significant.”

The consultants acknowledge that the school system gets a lot of federal COVID relief money — it wasn’t clear exactly how much at that point — but noted the ad hoc nature.

“One-time funds cannot be used for recurrent expenses," they note. "CARES Act funds are most likely one-time money. The consultants recognize that the superintendent and chief finance officer are aware of these parameters, but the consultants simply wish to underscore this critical point.”


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