The LA DOE provides a list of 25 groups of board responsibilities. The most important ones right now are overseeing the Superintendent, overseeing all financial aspects of the system and planning for growth. Oversight of finances and the Superintendent are critical given allegations of wrongful acts involving finances and the Superintendent’s efforts to cover them up. Board members should represent constituents and act as liaisons between the community and the system in order to better serve both. Members are required to attend training annually to keep abreast of laws and best practices. The training assures a board that is well equipped to make and enforce policies, advocate for schools and engage the community.
I attended four board meetings this year. Reading the board documents and viewing the meeting videos is more instructive than merely sitting in a perfunctory meeting. Board members have obviously pre-read documents and already decided how they will vote. Usually the vote is unanimous. The deliberative process would appear more genuine if an occasional dissent occurred. The most important reason to attend meetings, other than to understand protocol, is to address the board.
The Minimum Foundation Program is a formula set by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) based on the cost to educate students in primary and secondary public schools. It is dispersed per-student based on student counts twice a year. The idea is to provide sufficient resources so students receive the “minimum educational foundation necessary for future success”. Mandated by the state constitution, the MFP should facilitate an equitable allocation of funds to public schools. The formula is set annually by BESE, but must also be approved by the Legislature.
The amount set per student requires contributions from both the state and local school systems. The state contributes the difference between locally generated taxes from sales and property and the amount required in the formula. Systems generating more sales and property taxes are required to pay a larger share of MFP than less affluent parishes with smaller tax bases. St. Tammany is one of the more affluent systems.
In addition to numbers of regular students, numbers of special needs, at risk, gifted and talented students are calculated in the formula. Those students require an estimated 2.5 times the MFP formula to provide appropriate services. Amounts contributed by the state and a school system are about 65% & 35% respectively. St. Tammany contributes more than some other systems because of its relatively high tax base.
The term MFP is used generically to refer to the state’s portion of the formula. It is the largest pot of money St. Tammany uses for its operating budget. MFP funds are provided in increments and must first pay for state mandated items. Any remaining funds may be used for other expenses. However, revenue problems the last 10 years have so starved the state budget the MFP often has been frozen at previous years’ levels. Rather than formulating MFP on real cost analysis BESE has continued to base MFP on what the Legislature has to spend. Meanwhile the real costs to educate students have increased while the MFP usually has not. Not only are no MFP funds left over, the system has increasingly relied on other funding sources to comply with mandates and try to make ends meet.
Unfunded mandates may be imposed on the school system through the LA DOE, but they are often federal mandates that are passed through the state to local systems. Mandates are said to be unfunded if no funds are earmarked for them, funding is reduced or the government interferes with school systems’ ability to raise funds through taxes as they have in the Louisiana ITEA.
These mandates are the cost drivers in public education. Implementing the Common Core to raise and equalize national achievement standards has been the most costly unfunded mandate. The feds offered states a total of $350 million in aid to implement the standards, but receipt of federal education funds was tied to implementation. Like most other states LA was pressured and opted in before realizing how huge the costs would be.
Common Core implementation costs to school systems were an estimated Eighty billion dollars nationally. Expenses included: purchasing new textbooks aligned with curriculum; training teachers in new methods and subject matter; making technical upgrades/computers to administer assessments and writing assessments for students and teachers. Common Core Standards require a specific teacher evaluation formula.
The manner in which St. Tammany presents the budget obscures specific Common Core expenses. The system purchased computers and installed infrastructure to implement new CCS assessments, but grants provided funding for some purchases. Texts were purchased, but deciphering specific CCS text costs isn’t possible. Curriculum specialists wrote curriculum and assessments, but accounting documents do not separate Common Core from other work specialists produced. Teachers routinely receive in-service training, but separating CCS trainings from others was not possible using financial documents. Finally, the COMPAS formula for evaluating teachers was tied to Common Core and required of schools who received a share of the $350 million allocated for states. It is not possible to quantify the costs of implementing CCS in St. Tammany using public records. Based on national reporting it has been huge.
Louisiana Act 532 (2014) returned local control of curriculum, content and methodology to school boards. Having invested heavily in Common Core, it is unlikely the board will want to incur the extra unfunded costs that a change from CC Standards would require.
Another unfunded mandate that affects the operating budget is the board’s payments to the Teachers’ Retirement System. Individual teachers contribute to the system through payroll deductions. But the school system also contributes a percentage of teachers’ salaries which varies year to year. Currently it is 26.7%. The 2018-2019 Operating Budget lists $52,281,931 as its contribution for this fiscal year which is 12.51% of the total proposed operating budget. The amount is for teachers only. It does not reflect retirement system payments for other workers.
The board may provide “waivers” so a student can attend a school out of district. Waivers are available for a variety of reasons including convenience for parents who work in the system to facilitate their children’s transportation, or the need to place a student in the best possible environment to meet his needs. For instance, early intervention classes for speech impaired students may be needed and not offered at all schools. Or certain vocational and academic classes are offered at only a few high schools, not all. A student needing a specific vocational track or academic discipline might attend classes out of district.
Large imbalances in enrollment are more the product of St. Tammany’s rapid population growth than they are of district violations. Some adjustments could be made to class offerings at various schools to accommodate and balance student needs and numbers. Redistricting, though not always popular with parents, could also alleviate overcrowding or under-utilization of campuses. However, since St. Tammany is the fastest growing parish in the state and expected to remain so for a while, building new schools will be necessary, especially in the Western part of the parish near Madisonville.
The board has reported a need for new taxes to continue providing SROs when current funding runs out. Additionally, not all schools have their own officer; some must share. Mental health providers have been increased and need to remain on campuses in larger numbers to support mental health and violence prevention. While it may be necessary to increase the school board millage some other options are available.
New rules governing the Industrial Ad Valorem Tax Exemption (ITEP) will allow schools to begin collecting some taxes from businesses and industries previously exempt. The collections should increase as 10 year/100% exemptions are beginning to expire. Also, school systems are now allowed to begin collecting these taxes immediately rather than waiting 11 years. Earlier and increased tax collection, better fiscal stewardship and internal controls (not currently in place) should produce more funds without having to increase millage at this time.
Louisiana’s Industrial Ad Valorem Tax Exemption program has been called “the most notorious tax abatement program in the United States”. It was enacted in 1974 to attract business and industry jobs. Gov. Jindal’s changes to ITEP so robbed local governments of tax revenues that Gov. Edwards reformed it by executive order in 2017. Jindal appointed and gave the Board of Commerce and Industry sole authority to grant 100% property tax exemptions for 10 years without input from any parish and municipal governments. Governor Edwards’s order required local government entities to pass resolutions supporting local projects while allowing them to decide what, if any, exemptions might be granted. His order returned local control of new property taxes to local government agencies and encouraged taxpayer influence.
New ITEP rules were approved (July 2018) by the LA Board of Business and Industry that withdrew some power Gov. Edwards had given to local governments. The new rules allow the state to vet exemption applications but also allow local governments to say “yea” or “nay” within a 30-60 day window. The relatively short response time for approving an exemption or not requires the board to act quickly to exercise their authority. It would be prudent to adopt policies regarding preferred industries and any exemptions’ percentage and duration.
From 2006-2016 petro-chemical industries along the Mississippi River and in SW LA received 88% of ITEP exemptions and have caused the most significant health and environmental hazards. In the same period St. Tammany industries show less than $5 million in exemptions. Even without petro-chemical industries we have experienced health and environmental impacts from paper mill effluent in waterways, creosote treatment plants, shell dredging in Lake Pontchartrain, boat painting and dairy farming industries on bayous and rivers. Citizen efforts temporarily beat back the fracking industry until the price of oil dropped. Making an absolute statement about property tax exemptions without knowing what industries might apply is not prudent. Decisions must be made on a project’s merits. Considerations should include jobs production, environmental impact, longevity and future growth. School budgets were more impacted than other government functions by the excessive tax breaks in ITEP. It is estimated that ¾ of the exempted industries produced no new or permanent jobs. Acceptance or rejection of any exemption must be based on many factors. Numbers of jobs are paramount.