Faced with a student population that threatens to outgrow existing facilities, a shrinking budget and no guarantee parish voters are ready to support new taxes following the last failed bond election in 2011, one option for relief for the Lafayette Parish School System could come in the form of two charter school organizations.

With state funding cuts and an increase in the required payments to the state, equalling a decrease of about $45 million for the 2014 fiscal year budget, Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper says the school system has no other option but to dip into its fund balance. That, he says, will decrease the system’s existing reserves from a little less than $70 million to about $50 million.

“The short-term consideration is that our general fund balance can be considered a rainy day fund ... and it is raining,” Cooper writes in a statement issued recently to the school board, which has yet to approve the administration’s proposed budget. “The alternative is to make what I deem to be drastic cuts that will harm the students and teachers academically, exacerbate discipline problems, and make it even harder to retain teachers.”  

Cooper also says the time is now for bringing another millage tax before parish voters. The last attempt came in 2011 with a $500 million bond proposal, which failed miserably when 69 percent of voters failed to support it.

Photos by Robin May
LPSS Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper
Cooper, in his letter calling for the board’s support of the proposed budget, writes:
[I]t is inevitable in my mind that we will have to request from the citizens of Lafayette Parish additional tax revenues next year in order to not only survive another year of expected cuts, but to also provide funds to become an “A” district.  

My recommendation and that of staff is to provide the standstill budget for this year utilizing a portion of the fund balance.  Propose to the citizens a tax package this coming year to fund the programs and facilities we need. If the citizens do support additional tax dollars our fund balance will be replenished. If the citizens do not support additional funds, then we will have to make the catastrophic cuts next year instead of this year. I would rather give the citizens of Lafayette Parish a chance to weigh in before we make those cuts.
 LPSB member Kermit Bouillion

School Board member Kermit Bouillion says he's against calling another bond election so soon after the last failed attempt.

"Here we are debating if we're going to ask voters for a tax, and I really don't think Cooper's going to have five [board] members support him on that," Bouillion tells The IND. "I told him I won't."

Two Type 1 charter schools, however, could be an alternative to Cooper's push for calling another tax vote, says Bouillion.

Those two organizations are Florida-based Charter Schools USA and Michigan-based National Heritage Academies. Both groups addressed the school board during Wednesday’s meeting, each detailing their programs and plans to open Type 1 charters in Lafayette, which would mean the construction of new facilities to be complete in time for the 2014-15 school year.

Charter USA’s plans include construction of three schools — two elementary schools and one high school — over the next three years, while Heritage Academies will start by building one new facility for K-8 at a location of the board’s choosing. Charter USA’s plans include an elementary school on the north side and south side, while the location of the high school has not yet been determined.

As Type 1 charters, the two groups would be under the school board’s oversight and would work in a partnership with the school system and its “Turnaround Plan.” Type 2 charters are under the jurisdiction of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, meaning local school boards have no say in their governance.

One aspect for the board to consider when a final decision is made centers on the per-pupil funding the school system receives each year from the state. By entering a partnership with a Type 1 charter, the school board will see a decrease in the system’s student population and therefore a diversion of those per-pupil funds distributed by the state.

Yet both groups' plans to build brand new schools, on their own dime, would make losing a portion of the state per-pupil funding worthwhile.

"[Charter USA] wants to build three new schools here, an elementary school on the north side, an elementary school on the south side and a high school, and it won't cost us one penny and we won't have to raise taxes," says Bouillion. "If we can't afford to build a school on the south side, what's the problem with letting someone else who says they can? Personally, right now, I feel if a charter wants to come into town and build a school in the Youngsville /Broussard area, I don't think I'd oppose that. I think it's something the board needs to have a serious talk about."

While the board has denied previous proposals from Type 1 charter groups, the administration, says Cooper, supports a partnership with a charter group, if it's the "right" one. And the two groups to make presentations Wednesday, says Cooper, are the "right" groups.

“We’ve actually been in search of finding some good charters to come here, so we’ve done our research and feel the two groups from [Wednesday] night are legit,” Cooper tells The IND. “I’m in favor because it will get us over this short-term hump we’re dealing with. It makes sense financially. We’re already faced with an increasing student population, and both these groups will be able to get new schools built within nine months or so — something that would take us more that 18 months to accomplish.”

The board’s vote determining the future of charter schools in Lafayette Parish is expected for July.

Click here and here for more on the two charter groups.

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