What do you see as the main job responsibilities of a school board representative and how many school board meetings have you attended in person in the last two years?

School board members must work as a group to identify, hire, and oversee the Superintendent, guarantee that the school system operates in a fiscally responsible manner, and effectively communicate with constituents and the central office to ensure the community is well served with a high-performing, public school system. Members must attend annual training so they are up-to-date on applicable laws and best practices. I have only attended one school board meeting in the past two years but, since qualifying for this office, I have reviewed multiple years’ financials and read through meeting minutes on the boarddocs website to better understand the issues facing the St. Tammany school board.

 

What is the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) and why is it important to the St. Tammany schools?

The MFP is a formula used to determine the cost to educate students in elementary and secondary schools. Monies are dispersed twice per year based on student count. The amount is set by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and approved by the state legislature. The MFP is mandated by the state constitution to promote an equitable allocation of state funds to public schools.

Student education funding requires contributions from state and local school systems. Local systems with a higher tax base are required to pay a larger share of their students’ educational funding, while local school systems with lower property and sales tax revenues are supplemented with a larger share of funds from the state. St. Tammany has a very high tax base compared to most parishes in Louisiana, therefore we pay a higher share of our students’ educational funding than most other parishes.

The formula is designed with separate calculations to allow for different educational needs and costs. The base per-student rate is increased by a range of 6-150% per student who is categorized as at-risk, gifted and talented, or special needs.

The state provides approximately 65% of the educational funds for St. Tammany students, while the parish contributes approximately 35%. The MFP, which is used generically to refer to the state’s portion, is the largest source of revenue into the STPSS operating budget.

MFP funds must first be used to meet state mandates and secondarily for other expenses. Revenue problems at the state level often times do not allow for necessary funding increases. In that case, the MFP remains frozen at prior-year levels rather than BESE calculating it on an actual cost analysis.

 

The state has imposed numerous unfunded mandates on the St. Tammany school system. Discuss two of these mandates and how they affect the school-operating budget.

The La DOE often imposes on local systems mandates which do not have funds earmarked for their implementation. These mandates are sometimes initiated at the state level, in other instances they are initiated by the federal government and passed to local districts through the La DOE. The implementation of these mandates varies in cost and difficulty, but anytime a policy or curriculum is made mandatory without funding it is problematic. Unfunded mandates drive up education costs and force local school boards to either ask voters to approve new taxes or cut other programs to pay for them. Teacher retirement expenditures are budgeted at $52,281,931 for the 2018-2019 school year. This equates to 12.51% of the operating budget for the fiscal year. Employee group insurance expenditures are budgeted at $40,867,830, which is 9.78% of the operating budget. Neither of these line items are funded – both are mandated. The state also mandates a number of other programs including, but not limited to:

-Teachers Induction Program: a support program for teachers during their first three years of teaching. The school system has to provide personnel and training for those teachers.

-Dual Enrollment: this is a dual enrollment with local colleges. College professors or specially trained instructors teach students technical courses while attending high school. These students will receive high school and college credits.

-Stipends for National Board Certification: all educators must be state certified. Some choose to pursue nation certification. When a teacher or guidance counselor receives national certification, by law the school system has to pay the $5,000 per year above their regular pay.

The MFP requires that mandated items be funded first, which means that any unfunded mandates passed to local school systems must use MFP funds to cover those requirements first. If there aren’t enough funds left to pay for students’ education costs, it is up to the school district to find the necessary funds.

 

Tammany has an “out of district” policy that states a student must attend the public school in the district where the parent/ guardian owns a home and claims a homestead exemption or has proof of rent or lease.  There have been reported cases in which the policy has been violated.  A by-product of the policy violation is the overcrowding of some schools and under-utilization of others. Do you think anything should be done to balance the enrollment and reduce the need for more buildings? If so, what?

As a candidate from the Madisonville area, I am deeply familiar with school overcrowding. Madisonville schools, in particular, are entirely overcrowded. Constituents have brought to my attention that there are students who live outside of the parish attending schools within St. Tammany’s boundaries by using friends’ and neighbors’ addresses. Intra-parish infractions have also been reported. These issues need to be addressed but they are not the primary cause of overcrowding.

We have experienced explosive growth on the west side of the parish and home construction does not seem to be slowing. There are multiple, sizable, developments under construction. While I realize that growth is necessary, we must also be aware of the strain we are putting on existing infrastructure and plan ahead. Madisonville voters are desperate for a high school to be built in this area. We also need more parking, cafeteria, gymnasium, library, and classroom space at Madisonville Elementary and Madisonville Junior High. A dedicated entrance to Lancaster Elementary must also be considered. Unfortunately, there appears to be no concrete plan in the works to provide this necessary infrastructure.

While it is not a popular idea with most parents, redistricting should also be considered. We must make use of the existing buildings and classroom space within the parish – it is the fiscally responsible path forward.

 

A major concern to parents and voters is the safety of our children while they are in our care at school.  By the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, all 55 schools will have a school resource officer (SRO) funded by FEMA and the BP oil settlement.  These funds will eventually expire.  Would you favor increasing the school board tax millage to cover this cost or do you have another suggestion for coming up with the money?

As I understand it, the current board’s position is that new taxes will be required to continue providing SROs when current funds expire. While I feel confident that constituents in Madisonville would vote in favor of a new millage to provide SROs and increased mental health providers, if necessary, I am unsure if voters parish-wide would support a new tax. New Industrial Ad Valorem Tax Exemption (ITEP) rules will allow for tax collection from businesses that were previously exempt. It is likely that these increased taxes could support the costs for SROs and mental health providers, should the board vote to allocate funds moving forward. Personally, I do not support any tax increases until the current budget reporting meets constitutional requirements and at least one full time internal auditor, who reports directly to the school board, is hired by the central office. The available budgets as of August 2018 were not thorough enough to properly assess expenditures. I do not believe voters should be asked to pay more taxes to support our schools unless and until the financials are properly and thoroughly audited by and independent internal auditor.

 

The Louisiana Industrial Ad Valorem Tax Exemption program allows school districts to reject exemptions that decrease the tax revenue available to the school board. What action, if any, should the school board take in compliance with the current law to adopt new policies and standards for industries seeking tax exemptions?  Do you think the school board should accept or reject most exemptions?

It is impossible to state a definitive position without knowing which industries are seeking exemption. Businesses thrive when there is a pool of qualified, educated employees in an area, so they should be required to pay taxes to support public education. Businesses should not qualify for exemptions without providing significant documentation that they will employ a large number of local residents. Rather than issuing exemptions up-front and rescinding them if companies do not fulfill expectations, it would be sensible to allow businesses to earn exemptions gradually after proving their significant positive economic impact in any given area. Additional considerations should include environmental impact, projected growth of the business and the length of time and degree to which the jobs created will affect the local economy.