“We have experienced major cuts that trickle down to students … and diminish the quality of services we can provide,” said Scott Richard, a supervisor with the Lafayette Parish school system who led the legislative presentation.
School superintendents and staff and board members from Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes held the meeting to discuss their mutual concerns with 10 area legislators.
While BESE has recommended no increase this year to the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, (the states per-pupil funding formula). The MFP has not seen any cuts but has also not received a 2.75 percent in the past two years.
That isn’t to say that local school’s haven’t lost money. In total, the seven school districts have faced a loss of $31.4 million without the funding for three consecutive data, according to data presented by Richard.
Unfunded mandates — programs or costs required by the state without financial support — such as LEAP remediation and retirement contributions, make it difficult to balance district budgets, said Tony Fontana, Vermilion Parish School Board member.
He asked legislators to propose a resolution that prohibits the unfunded mandates.
“We had a $6 million budget deficit. We cut $3 million. We got a $5 million unfunded mandate. You take that away from us, we can balance the budget,” he said.
Officials also said that a combination of factors are contributing to even tighter budgets this year.
The negative cumulative impact of the loss of federal stimulus funding this year, unfunded mandates, increased retirement costs and the absence of federal Edujobs funding has totaled nearly $160 million for the seven districts, said Richard. He added that the figure comes from an estimate of the upcoming year and on the past two years.
The school leaders in attendance called for a moratorium on new accountability measures, such as a change from the star-rating to label school and district performance to a letter grade system, and value added evaluations for teachers and principals.
The moratorium should remain in effect until the MFP is funded with a growth factor, common standard assessments are in place and proposed federal accountability standards are finalized, Richard said.
The state uses a star-rating to label its school and district performances.
Schools are scheduled to get their first letter grade this fall, but school officials said it will send a negative message to students and the public.
Superintendent John E. Bourque and members of the Acadia Parish School Board voiced their concern over this new letter grade system at their March board meeting. Several citing that the general belief is that these grades are based on the same scale that students’ grades are given, which is not the case.
As the letter grade system stands now, the majority of schools in the state would be rated a C, said John Sartin, school superintendent of Caldwell Parish, and president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.
The switch “will have quite an effect on our economic outlook,” Sartin said. “People, businesses want to come to areas that have good schools.”
The letter-grade system was approved by the Legislature last year with BESE approving standards for the system in December.
The system does not reward low-performing schools for growth, said Richard Lavergne, St. Martin Parish school superintendent, who served on the grade letter-system advisory commission.
He explained if a low performing school jumped 10 points in its accountability score, the improvement won’t be noted in their grade.
He joked if the state would give out an “F-plus.”
“This was not what the superintendents had envisioned. We tried to take a look at growth,” Lavergne said.
School officials told legislators they’re losing out on qualified and certified teacher-substitutes because of legislation passed last year that freezes the benefits of retirees who return to work.
State Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, defended the bill he authored, saying it was meant to eliminate abuse of the benefits system.
Cortez said he’s prepared to file another bill that would enable retirees to substitute teach without freezing their retirement benefits.
Other hot-button issues school officials asked legislators to investigate:
• Requiring school superintendents to have a background in education.
• Performance of the Recovery School District.
• A moratorium on extended sick leave except in cases of a catastrophic illness.
• A voucher program.
• Contract and professional services in the Louisiana Department of Education budget.