Rental policy disputed by school board

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 19, 2011

By David Vitrano


RESERVE – When St. John the Baptist Parish Schools Executive Director of Business and Finance Felix Boughton presented the School Board with a revised school rental policy at their meeting Thursday, the action ignited a heated debate and showed sharp divisions within the board.

While the actual policy has been in place for some time, for the last couple of years the board has generally waived the rental fees for many organizations to use district property. This, however, is contrary to regulations set forth by the attorney general because, according to board attorney Lloyd Leblanc, the act essentially equates to giving away public, taxpayer-funded property.

Accordingly, last year Leblanc informed the board of the situation, and Boughton set about refining and simplifying the policy. The revised policy sets a standard rental fee for all facilities and sets rates depending on the type of function to be held.

It also states, “The school board cannot legally absorb any cost for use of its facilities by any non-school system group.”

Board member Russell Jack, who represents the west bank of the parish, emerged as the leading opponent of the policy.

“It concerned members of my community because there are a limited number of places that can be used,” said Jack, adding, “Our schools are not just schools.”

Jack continued, “This will cause some families not to have functions they otherwise would have.”

He said he thought the rates would be prohibitive for some groups. Jack added

“What you charge is up to the board,” said Leblanc. “But you cannot give away public property.”

Jack said he thought the amount charged would not make a great deal of difference to the school system in the larger scheme of things, but Boughton replied, “It’s really not a money issue. It’s a compliance issue.”

He added, “You’ll basically be breaking even.”

He explained, at the urging of board member Albert Burl III, the money goes back into the general fund to cover the expenses of utilities and cleanup for events held on school property.

In the end, the revised policy narrowly passed by a vote of 6-5. Board members Burl, Keith Jones, Rodney Nicholas and Jack and Board President Patrick Sanders all opposed the measure.

Another item that sparked debate was an informational item concerning a pilot study of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed student-based budgeting.

Although Boughton explained, “We did get it in writing that it would not affect our funding next year. This is just a pilot study,” board member Russ Wise was concerned about undertaking such a study without knowing all of the ramifications.

“When does this take effect, and how will it change the way we do business?” asked Wise.

Superintendent Courtney Millet explained the study was merely for data-collecting purposes and would not affect the way funding is distributed until the measure is made official. She estimated the earliest it could be implemented is 2013.

Millet said the district is participating in the pilot study at the request of the state Department of Education. Because the district participated in the Race to the Top grant application, it is part of a group of eight districts in the state called “Trailblazer Districts,” she said.

Neighboring school districts in St. James and St. Charles parishes have vehemently opposed the measure and issued resolutions against it, but Millet explained why she has been more accepting of the proposed measure.

“If we don’t participate in some of these reforms, how do we make change?” she said.

The plan is aimed at giving a school’s principal the authority to determine how state, federal and local education dollars are spent at the school site. The study is expected to be piloted at John L. Ory Communications Magnet School in LaPlace during the 2011-12 school year.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board recognized the efforts of member Gerald Keller, who served as board president from 2000 to 2010.

Jones presented Keller with a gavel inscribed in his honor.

Lastly, Sanders informed the board and the public that the next regular meeting will be moved from March 3 to March 1 to accommodate the state association of school boards convention.