A majority of Lafayette Parish School Board members are dead-set on destroying the school system — content to watch it burn while they are no longer in office.
November elections will likely remove a number of the current board members and a couple of others probably won't even be on the ballot, which means they won’t be politically impacted by the votes they are casting today. The result of what happens with this year’s budget process, which could very well mean a complete dismantling of the turnaround plan and termination of hundreds of school employees, will be left on the shoulders of a new school board seated in January.
Among those plotting the takedown of the system, a sort of revenge tactic aimed at Superintendent Pat Cooper, are Mark Allen Babineaux, who’s planning to run for a district judgeship; Rae Trahan, who faces a tough re-election battle from two challengers, Brian West and Jeremy Hidalgo, if she even decides to run; board president Hunter Beasley, who has stiff competition from businessman Erick Knezek for his District 8 seat; Tommy Angelle (who knows what he will do?); and Greg Awbrey, who has been noncommittal on whether he will seek re-election.
These lame duck board members won't go quietly.
Case in point: their inability to deal with this year’s $23.5 million budget deficit and refusal to dip into the school system’s $66 million reserve fund.
The end game will be a massive blood-letting of school system employees, which means a staff reduction of about 300 employees, including more than 100 teachers.
These cuts will result in student-teacher ratios increasing from 23:1 to 26:1 for K-third grade, 25:1 to 28:1 in fourth through fifth grade, and 28:1 to 33:1 for sixth through 12th grade. Thirty-three students to one teacher. Yes, you are reading this correctly.
It’s the superintendent’s responsibility to draft the school system’s budget, and the board’s role is to either approve or deny the superintendent’s proposal. Yet, our school board members have taken it upon themselves, as seen with Thursday night’s special meeting, to offer their own genius suggestions for piecemeal cuts.
Board member Babineaux suggested cutting $495,000 out of the school system’s travel fund. That money, however, had already been cut.
The majority of their suggestions, so far, have been aimed at the central office, but that’s not going to solve the problem.
“They could cut out the whole central office, me included, and that’s only $5.5 million and they’d still have $18 million to cut from the schools,” says Cooper. “Central office makes up less than 2 percent of our entire budget, and they know there’s no other place to cut. The only place left to go is the classroom.”
That could be avoided. Cooper, in his original budget proposal, requested the board approve dipping into the school system’s $66 million reserve fund. Because his request was denied, Cooper was forced to present the board with a balanced budget that would result in about 300 terminations, which in addition to teachers, would include instructional strategists, assistant principals, social workers, counselors, data analysts, school safety officers and others.
“With everything the state’s requiring now with data collection and response to intervention and positive data support, for the teachers, that’s easily an extra 10 hours of work every week, and that’s not counting discipline problems,” explains Cooper. “This is going to hit the teachers from all sides. And if those teachers have that many extra students in their classrooms, without the extra help, those poor teachers are going to get killed. It’s just way too many kids to be in a classroom, especially with as big a population of at-risk kids as we have.”
In opposing the use of the reserve fund to plug the budget gap, the board argues that such action today will lead to an exhaustion of the $66 million fund.
Those are scare tactics.
When Cooper arrived in 2012, the board’s policy maintained that the reserve fund only had to cover the school system’s expenses for 2.5 months. After last year’s budget process, the board voted to increase that period to three months.
If the board would approve Cooper’s request to fill this year’s budget deficit, the reserve fund would still be at $54 million, which is the exact amount in the reserve upon Cooper’s arrival.
“We’re actually getting more property and sales taxes, but now that we’re getting more, they’re saying, ‘We can’t use any unless it’s over the three-month marker,’” explains Cooper. “All we’re asking this year is to go back to 2.5 months. That’s a perfectly fine reserve, better than most. But they’re keeping us from those dollars so we can’t fund anything. The real problem isn’t just the turnaround plan. As long as we don’t have a budget, we can’t hire teachers, and there’s no reason to do this except for politics. To me, if you’re holding us up like that from getting our dollars, you’re hurting the kids and the teachers, and I find that to be pretty reprehensible.”
It is reprehenisible.
And it is past time for the public to let these school board members know they can't get by with it.
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The world is a politically tense place these days with hot spots ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine. In Louisiana and Mississippi, where the political chessboard tends to be a lot less threatening and at times entertaining, this election season is living up to expectations.
As this year’s budget process slogs forward and the Lafayette Parish School Board maintains its hard-headed stance against using any of its more than $60 million reserve fund, another slate of critical programs have rolled through the chopping block, despite the ramifications for the school system.
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