MFP Senate hearing 050219

Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Larry Carter, foreground, Shane Riddle, director of legislative affairs for the Louisiana Association of Educators, middle and Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents urge the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, May 2, 2019, to approve a $39 million hike in state aid for public schools.

In a repeat of budget battles, Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Senate are lining up against the Louisiana House on whether public schools will land their second funding increase in the past decade.

How the dispute plays out could also affect the popular proposed $1,000 pay raise for public school teachers, and raise the ire of already restive teacher unions amid nationwide walkouts over pay.

The Democratic governor, unlike GOP House leaders, says there is ample money in his $30 billion operating budget proposal to finance both a $39 million hike in state aid for public schools plus the teacher pay raises.

"The revenue is there," Edwards said. "It absolutely can be done and should be done."

The Senate Education Committee, in a signal to the House, voted 6-1 on Thursday for a resolution – SCR 3 – that includes both the $39 million increase and $101 million to pay for the teacher pay raises and $500 boosts for support workers.

Senate panel endorses $39 million public schools increase, setting up showdown with House

"It's an easy vote for me," said Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette and a member of the committee, a stark contrast to House GOP sentiment.

Edwards heaped praise on the committee a few hours later.

But just as seven special sessions on the budget from 2016-18 often pitted the House against the Senate and governor this one is shaping up the same way.

The House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans, but the Senate is more closely aligned with Edwards.

The House Education Committee voted last month to return the same funding plan endorsed by the Senate committee to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and for BESE to strip out the $39 million.

BESE plans to tackle the issue at a special meeting on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

State Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge and a member of both the appropriations and education committees, said the math clearly shows the state is short.

Edmonds noted that, after BESE submitted its recommendation, the Revenue Estimating Conference concluded the state would have $119 million in new dollars, $20 million short of earlier projections.

"The number they (BESE) are requesting requires us to cut somebody else because we still don't have $139 million to fund what they have requested," he said.

"Any way you go, the Legislature is stuck with how you would fund it," he said.

That is also the view of House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette.

Landry, when told that the governor said the money is there, said she would "love to see where he is coming up with that number," a reference to the $39 million increase for public schools.

"The number he (Edwards) gave BESE were numbers that were not recognized," she said. "He misled them."

Asked what he would say to those who say the $39 million increase is unaffordable, Edwards said, "I would say they are wrong."

House leaders contend that, to finance the boost for public schools, the state would have to make cuts to the Taylor Opportunity Program For Students, food stamps known as SNAP or waivers for those with disabilities.

"Obviously, as we have seen from the past, the options are not good," said Brigitte Nieland, government affairs director of Stand For Children.

The Edwards administration says savings in the state Department of Health, and $15 million in state agency cuts, will pave the way for the $39 million increase.

That issue is expected to win attention on Monday when Henry's committee starts it final markup of the $30 billion budget ahead of a vote in the full House on Thursday.

Both the $39 million increase and the $1,000 pay raises are spelled out in the funding resolution for the Minimum Foundation Program, which is $3.85 billion.

The MFP provides basic state aid for schools for the 2019-20 school year.

One subplot of the debate is whether the teacher pay raises will be added to the formula, which means they would be recurring.

If the MFP resolution dies teacher pay raises could still win approval but they would only cover one year, forcing a new debate in 2020.

"It is essentially like a one-year stipend," said Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state's two teacher unions.

Holly Boffy, vice-chair of BESE and a former state teacher of the year, made the same point.

"If it is outside the formula it is not a pay raise," said Boffy, who lives in Youngsville.

BESE, in what would be a rebuff to House leaders, is expected to stick with the same request it sent to the Legislature in March, including the $39 million boost.

But some members, including Jim Garvey, echo the views of Landry and Edmonds in asking how the school aid component will be funded.

"I can't just go spend willy-nilly," said Garvey, who lives in Metairie.

Teachers in Louisiana are paid an average of $50,000 per year, which is below the regional average by around $2,200 and nearly $10,000 below the U.S. average, officials said.

The governor, who is seeking a second term this year, has said the $1,000 increases would be the first of three years aimed at reaching the benchmark for Southern states.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said school districts are in desperate need of funds.

He said the list includes Medicare, worker's compensation, unemployment costs and expenses for implementing a new science curriculum statewide.

The two-month session ends on June 6.

Faulk noted that the school aid debate often comes down to the final days.

"Naturally school systems are formulating their budgets for next year," he said.

"They don't know how to handle the uncertainity. "It is causing some anxiety there, especially for those that are having financial issues."

 But the crux of the argument is whether the state actually has the dollars to pay for the increase, as well as teacher pay raises that would be permanent rather than one-year stipends.


 

Highlights of public schools debate

  • School funding proposal: $3.85 billion
  • Who proposed: Gov. John Bel Edwards, state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
  • Increase for public schools: 1.375 percent
  • Pricetag: $39 million
  • Student enrollment: 717,000
  • Teacher pay: $1,000 increase
  • Pay today: $50,000 average
  • Support pay: $500 increase
  • Pay today: $23,000 average
  • Pricetag for raises: $101 million
  • Takes effect: 2019-20 school year

Sources: Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana Association of Educators


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.