School budget negotiations testing employee patience

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 22, 2010

By David Vitrano


RESERVE – For the second meeting in a row, the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board held a nearly four-hour meeting, much of it taking place behind closed doors, and for the second meeting in a row, crowds of district employees waited it out to hear some news regarding possible layoffs.

And once again, they came away disappointed.

Following an hour-long update on negotiations, the Board re-emerged from the back room only to immediately call for a recess. During the ensuing hour-and-a-half, members of the teachers union and district administration met behind closed doors to try to hammer out a deal but to no avail.

“We’re still in negotiations,” said Superintendent Courtney Millet. “I was hoping it would be resolved this evening, but it wasn’t.”

Carolyn Batiste, the leader of the local union, said she understands the financial problems the district is facing, and she is willing to work with them to find a solution, but she is not willing to let the people she represents be compromised in the process.

“We’re willing to work with the administration,” she said but added, “If we give in now, we’ll have to give in all the time.”

Batiste said she is confident a deal will be hammered out by the time the budget is due on July 1.

Millet sent out an e-mail to all district employees Thursday, the day of the meeting and the last day of school for students, which read, “My belief is that a reduction in pay for all employees would have been our best solution because it would have had a less devastating effect on us and our community as a whole rather than the laying off of employees.” The e-mail also detailed similar problems other school systems in Louisiana are having.

The administration had originally asked for a 5-percent pay reduction. At the end of Thursday’s negotiations, the amount had been lowered to 3 percent, but Batiste will still have to get everyone else on board. To that end, the union will hold a meeting for all employees of the system Monday at 5 p.m. in the Godchaux Grammar cafeteria.

Just before the board broke for executive session, member Russ Wise introduced two proposals aimed at reducing costs from the board’s end.

“We are facing the most serious financial problem we have faced since I’ve been on the board,” said Wise. “We need to make clear that we are willing to make sacrifices.”

Wise suggested board members take a voluntary pay cut — from $800 per month to $1 per month — for the upcoming fiscal year. He said such a move would save the district over $100,000.

That proposal was ultimately tabled until the next meeting.

Wise’s second proposal was for the board to reduce its size by at least two members. According to Wise, two districts in the system do not even contain schools, and he believes redistricting will take place when the results of the 2010 census are published. Board President Gerald Keller, however, was absent from the meeting so no action could be taken regarding that proposal.

Earlier in the meeting, Executive Director of Business and Finance Felix Boughton asked the board to adopt a resolution calling for a special election in the fall to renew a pair of millages on property taxes that provide the district with about $5 million in revenue.

Boughton said the failure to renew the millages would have a “tremendous” effect on the system and said the board should take action immediately to ensure the resolution would have enough time to pass through all the channels.

Despite this, board member Albert Burl III moved for the board table the matter until next meeting. That motion narrowly failed with a vote of 5-5. Finally, the board approved the adoption of the resolution by a vote of 9-1, with Burl casting the lone dissenting vote.

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, St. John Clerk of Court Eliana DeFrancesch swore in Sherry DeFrancesh as the newest member of the St. John School Board.

Of her first meeting as a board member, DeFrancesh said, “It was a good introduction. It was an interesting day.”

Also Thursday, Millet announced that the latest LEAP and GEE scores have been released but are currently embargoed.

Millet, however, did say, “We did see improvements … in all areas.”