Valarie (copy)

Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, shown here earlier this year, said he hopes the Legislature will override Gov. John Bel Edwards' veto of his bill touted as a way to ensure transparency on local school board finances. At right is Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs.

Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges, of Denham Springs, waits as Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, discusses her legislation to require public schools to teach World War II and the Holocaust on Monday, May 24, 2021. Her House Bill 416 was approved on a 66-32 and now heads to the Senate.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' veto of a bill touted as a way to ensure taxpayers can see how local school boards are spending their money will be one of the targets of an override attempt if Louisiana lawmakers convene on July 20.

The measure, House Bill 38, was vetoed by Edwards July 2 along with 27 others.

House and Senate members have until July 15 to decide whether to return to the State Capitol for the state's first ever session strictly to review vetoes.

An override would allow the bill to take effect despite the governor's objections. Any such effort requires the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate – 70 and 26 respectively – and the Legislature has only done so twice.

HB38, which is sponsored by state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, would add most of the state's local school boards to the current website known as Louisiana Checkbook.

The site, which is modeled after one in Ohio, spells out financial details on how state agencies are spending tax dollars.

The legislation would require school boards with enrollments of 2,500 and more to provide information on their budgets, debt, employment, payroll and tax data. "We passed a bill that was transparent for the people," Edmonds said earlier this week.

"Every parent would be able to look in at what we are doing with every dollar," he said during a legislative committee hearing.

The key dispute is whether the new rules would impose unfair financial burdens on local school boards.

In his veto message dated July 1, Edwards said the state has spent years developing the current system that covers state agencies and "taken millions and millions of state taxpayer dollars to accomplish."

"Our local school systems simply do not have the resources or technology to comply with this unfunded mandate," he said.

Edmonds and other backers of the measure said the $37 billion operating budget includes $317,000 to help defray costs of spelling out school board expenses for the public.

But the Louisiana School Boards Association, which opposed the measure, said while the state's share of expenses is included in the budget, costs to local school boards were not.

Janet Pope, executive director of the LSBA, said those expenses will rise even more if the software used by local school board officials is not compatible with the state system.

She said the new requirements would be especially burdensome for some small districts. In addition, Pope said plenty of information on school board spending is already available to parents and others.

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"School boards are the most transparent local government agency," Pope said. 

The LSBA represents boards in all 69 school districts, and 643 individual board members.

The bill is backed by The Pelican Institute, which calls itself the state's "free market think tank," the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state's powerful business lobby, and the education advocacy group Stand For Children.

John Kay, vice-president for advocacy for The Pelican Institute, said the governor's comments about affordability are off target since public schools are getting about $4 billion in federal dollars to help with coronavirus pandemic expenses.

"There has never been more money flowing through schools, not to mention the fact that money to implement it was in House Bill 1," Kay said, a reference to the $37 billion budget bill.

He said the new rules would cover boards that oversee 91% of students statewide.

Pope said the idea that schools will be getting $4 billion in federal aid to spend as they please is wrong.

"The language out there is school systems have all this money," she said. "But our school systems can only spend this money on COVID-related items."

The estimated state costs of the bill puts the tab at nearly $310,000 initially, then quickly drops to about $32,000 per year. "The proposed legislation will also result in increased costs for local public school systems for upfront system modifications and programming costs as well as ongoing support and maintenance costs," according to the document.

State budget analysts estimated the costs to the 50 school boards would be $15,000 each – around $750,000 in all – plus annual maintenance costs of $25,500.

The bill won final Senate approval 20-14 and cleared the House 76-27.

The closeness of the Senate vote – it passed with the minimum number needed for approval – raises questions on whether backers could round up 26 votes for an override.

Edmonds said late-session questions on whether the bill would unfairly penalize local school boards held down the "yes" votes, and that gathering the two-thirds majorities in both chambers is feasible.

In the first votes the House backed the measure 99-0 and the Senate did so 27-10.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.