Board adds bonds to fall election

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 8, 2008


Staff Reporter

RESERVE – The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board on Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution to bring before parish residents this fall two propositions including a bond election that would allow the board to issue bonds of up to $46 million to be spent toward improving current facilities and possibly building additional schools. The propositions are to appear on the ballot for the Nov. 4 election.

But a night in which almost every agenda item sparked a spirited debate culminated in the board rejecting a proposal from a Baton Rouge firm that offered to coordinate the district’s informational campaign for the bond issue – an effort most officials agreed would be needed to ensure the success of the two propositions – and act as project manager and liaison in determining and implementing any improvements and new school constructions the board approves.

The first of the two propositions calls for the rededication over the next 10 years of eight mills of a special property tax to pay for the unfunded health benefits of the district’s retired employees as well as the salaries and benefits of current teachers.

Additionally, three of the eight mills would be used to implement a written plan for academic school improvements. Officials said it could be “reasonably expected” that the levy of the tax would produce $2.34 million a year, according to current estimates.

The second proposition would enable the school board to sell $46 million of general obligation bonds to run 20 years from the date they are issued to improve the physical sites of schools, many of which are relatively old. Hugh Martin, the board’s bond attorney, said at the meeting Thursday that it would likely take about five years to sell $46 million in bonds.

“Our assessed valuation is finally – after all these years – growing, which has increased our bond capacity and our revenue to pay bonds,” said Martin, who also commended the board for recently eliminating four mills from the taxes levied in St. John. “We also have not issued a lot of tax-supported debt in recent years, so the amount of debt we have outstanding has been reduced. That has presented the school board with some options.”

While the resolution passed easily, several board members voiced concerns that an uninformed public might shoot down the bond issue if it’s unclear how the board would allocate the funds. Martin added that state law limits the description of the propositions to 400 words on the ballot.

 Board Member Ali Burl said his constituents might be hesitant to vote for a tax if an effort isn’t made to assure them that they, too, would benefit from the improvements . “That’s why we had to push for the incorporation, because all the monies were being generated in Reserve and Garyville and being spent in LaPlace,” Burl said. “I have some unreadiness about this.”

At the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, the board voted against the proposal by the Baton Rouge firm, CSRS Inc. Board Member Russ Wise urged the board to consider separately the two main phases proposed by the firm: the informational campaign leading up to and concluding with the Nov. 4 election and the implementation of enhancements and construction projects when and if the tax money becomes usable.

CSRS proposed charging the board $175,000 for the informational campaign and preliminary phases and then 4.5 percent of the total value of the project – about $2.7 million dollars if the board were to sell $46 million in bonds.

Wise supported hiring CSRS to handle the first phase but cautioned against “obligat[ing] ourselves to complete this work after Election Day” for projects the board may or may not opt to do. “This is not necessarily a package deal.”

Wise, by far the most outspoken dissenter, was not alone in his opposition, but the 5-5 vote that killed the motion seemed to belie the amount of initial support for CSRS and its proposal.

Felix Boughton, executive director of financial and business operations for the school system, said the firm had received good marks from several of his colleagues and superintendents he consulted in neighboring parishes. “Every school district I contacted said these guys are excellent, the best in the business.”

After the meeting, Superintendent Courtney Millet said she was “disappointed” with the rejection of the CSRS proposal. “It was really hard to convince [CSRS] to even agree to such a tight timeline in the first place.”