$3 million shortfall looming, layoffs likely

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 4, 2010

By David Vitrano


RESERVE – The St. John the Baptist Parish School System is facing a 2010-11 school year budget deficit and may be looking at a reduction in force to remedy the situation.

The district also faced a shortfall this year but was able to make up the difference by dipping into the system’s surplus. While the district will use the rest of the surplus in figuring next year’s budget, it is still left with a $3 million deficit, according to Superintendent Courtney Millet and Executive Director of Business and Finance Felix Boughton.

Boughton said a number of factors have led to the district’s current financial situation.

“It’s not for us overspending,” he said.

During the 2008-09 school year, the district collected $37.5 million in local revenue and $36.5 million in state funds. For the 2009-10 year, local revenue dropped to $32.7 million, and state funding decreased to $31.6 million. For the upcoming year, local revenue dropped again to $30.5 million and state funding dropped to $28 million.

The reasons for the decreases are myriad. Locally, the system received a huge amount of money from sale taxes related to the Marathon expansion in Garyville. Now that the project has ended, that source of revenue has evaporated. On the state level, funding comes from the Minimum Foundation Program. The formula that figures this amount, however, looks at local revenue from two years prior, which was during the height of the expansion project. Millet said the system is in for another year of diminished state funding before it picks up again for the 2012-13 school year.

Additionally, Boughton said the state fails to take other factors into account when determining MFP funding. The retirement system for local school boards, he said, works somewhat like Social Security in that a certain amount must be paid into the system by the district. For the upcoming year, that amount is estimated at $2.5 million.

Additionally, parts of the sales tax revenue is dedicated, and Boughton said only a small portion actually goes to the school system’s general fund.

Millet, Boughton and the School Board’s Finance Committee have already been reviewing the budget and making cuts where possible. At the beginning, of the current school year, cuts were made to the staff at the central office, a move that saved the system $350,000. Now Millet has placed a freeze on the hiring of all full-time, non-classroom personnel.

Also, the district has proposed to cut expenses by eliminating some non-essential contracts and programs and spending funds in a smarter, more efficient way.

For example, Millet said some programs and fees paid for out of the general fund might be able to be funded through other government funding, such as Title I.

The district also plans to cut substitute custodians and bus drivers for the next school year. Additionally, extra transportation such as for field trips and athletic events may have to be handled in a different way. The board is asking schools to schedule field trips on non-school days, and schools may have to hold fundraisers to provided busing for athletic teams.

Despite the efforts to reduce costs, the system is still left with a $3 million shortfall. A reduction in force may be necessary to make up the amount.

“85 percent of the budget is people,” said Boughton.

A couple of weeks ago, the district’s 90 one-year employees received letters stating their contracts were coming to an end June 30. While the district sends out such letters every year, this year they were taken more seriously because of the economy. And while it was assumed most of them would not be returning next year, Millet said she discovered retirees have some protection under the law. That means employees such as East St. John’s coach Larry Dauterive may be retaining their current positions.

Late-hires and non-certified teachers who received the letter have no protection, however.

The school system will now have to consider these employees on an individual basis, using seniority as the main criteria for position retention.

“Hopefully by Friday we’ll have it all figured out,” said Millet. She added she hoped the move would eventually lead to having a higher percentage of certified teachers in the district.

This means other positions in the system may have to be eliminated, said Millet, who met with the local teacher’s union last week to discuss the possibility of layoffs.

Millet said cuts would be made based on enrollment and need. One of the biggest areas of proposed staff reduction is at the Leon Godchaux Accelerated Program. LGAP is proposed to be reduced to only seventh and eighth grade next year and to be eliminated altogether for the 2011-12 school year. The students who would normally attend LGAP will be handled in house, said Millet.

Regardless, Millet aimed to calm people’s fears about massive layoffs in the system. “It’s not going to be a big number,” she said.

Before moving forward with any of these plans, administration must receive approval from not only the teacher’s union but the School Board as well. While some of this will be discussed at Thursday’s School Board meeting, a final version of the budget must be presented to the board during the first meeting in June.

They must then approve a budget by June 30.