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Opinions divided over St. John school budget

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 6, 2011

By David Vitrano

L’Observateur

LAPLACE – The administration of St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools is inching ever closer to coming up with a budget plan for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which began July 1.

“We are currently meeting with the SJAE on some cost cutting measures,” said Executive Director of Business and Finance Felix Boughton.

Although the school board had originally set an Aug. 1 deadline for adoption of the budget, it is now just trying to beat the Sept. 15 deadline set by the state. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education must receive an adopted budget by Sept. 30.

Boughton said the administration and the teachers’ union have been meeting regularly to try to work out a plan that does not include layoffs.

Other than the prospect of layoffs, another sticking point in the budget as it stands now is a reduction in funding for school athletics. Boughton said the current plan cuts the athletics budget in half.

Many on the board voiced their opposition to slashing the athletics budget.

“I think a lot of (the students) are going to lose interest in school without athletics,” said board member Rodney Nicholas. “I think it’s a small investment to make.”

Board member Russ Wise, while not favoring cutting athletics funding, saw things a little differently.

“Like it or not, there is not as much money to spend,” he said. “We are going to have to develop a budget which is both realistic and targets our primary objective. I will cut the athletics budget to zero before I let the academics slip at any school at any time.”

Boughton said the district, through a combination of reduced MFP and sales tax revenue, as well as other state reductions and increased retirement costs, have cut the available school dollars nearly in half compared to a couple of years ago.

“If you don’t have the money, you can’t spend it,” said Board Vice President and Finance Committee Chairman Clarence Triche.

Some board members also complained about the lack of time left to review the proposed budget.

“You know what you’re doing. You know why you’re doing it,” said board member Russell Jack. “That’s just not the way things should be done.”

Nicholas added, “I don’t want this budget shoved down my throat at the last minute.”

After a plan is approved by both the administration and the union, the board plans to hold an emergency school board meeting to review the budget and either adopt it or send it back to the drawing board.

In other action Thursday, the school board voted to reject a proposal from First Student Inc. to take over the management and maintenance of the district’s bus fleet.

“On the surface it looks like it would save the board a little bit of money,” said Boughton.

Closer inspection of the proposed contract, however, revealed some stipulations, such as renovations to the maintenance building at the central office and the possibility of raising prices should buses not be replaced on First Student’s schedule, which could lead to higher costs than the district currently pays for the services.

Boughton said the district will continue to manage the bus fleet in house and will now seek new proposals for bus fleet maintenance. The current maintenance contract expires at the end of December.