School Board outlook for 2017

State funding, teacher shortage are top challenges

Tackling the evolving state-level funding shortage and finding ways to recruit more educators are among the challenges facing St. Charles Parish Schools this year.

Alex Suffrin, School Board vice president and District 8 representative, said perhaps the biggest challenge for the school system is dealing with falling state funding, as well as limitations potentially placed on it.

“When expenses go up, you’re put in a position to have to cut them somewhere or increase revenue,” Suffrin said. “And we’re limited in the ways we can (increase revenue) … our funding’s been attacked and it’s perhaps the biggest challenge we’ve faced in this regard.”

A committee has been formed to evaluate cost-benefit aspects of school programs and services, he said. He credited Superintendent Felecia Gomez-Walker for its formation and for being proactive in her attempts to address the concerns.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Suffrin said. “It won’t be solved overnight.”

District 6 Representative Jay Robichaux and District 5 Representative John Smith each echoed those thoughts.

Robichaux said while there are no problems now, a further squeeze on funding could change things.

“We don’t perceive anything negative with that right now, but with the Legislature, something could hurt us or help us. It’s always an issue to monitor,” Robichaux said. “We put an emphasis on being fiscally responsible and sound, and scrutinizing everything we do to ensure it is directly making the education of our students better and worthwhile.”Smith said it comes down to a balancing act.

“It’s a challenge we have continuously,” Smith said. “We’ve always strived to continue to find ways of providing a quality curriculum to educate our children, meeting needs to keep our facilities where they need to be … we’re always trying to find ways to improve and add.”

Both Robichaux and Smith credited teachers as a strong group who’s gone a long way in helping the district maintain its “A” rating with the state Education Department. But the two also acknowledged less people are becoming teachers nationally, shrinking the pool of potential hires each year.

“We feel we have the best and brightest teachers in our system, but finding more can always be an issue (in today’s day and age),” Robichaux said. “It’s not only here, but everywhere people are dealing with that. There are just not as many kids going into profession.”

District 1 representative Ellis Alexander believes a disparity in suspensions levied to students who are African-American is an ongoing issue.

Though 30 percent of the system’s students are African-American, they made up 70 percent of those suspended in the 2014-15 school year, Alexander said.

While he acknowledged the trend improved last school year, he said it is still an issue that needs attention.

“It’s the same thing we’ve been dealing with the past few years,” Alexander said. “We need to correct that.”

He pointed to the disproportionate number of African-American males who are imprisoned in comparison to their percentage of the population to illustrate what he believes is a societal problem, and he said positive change can begin at the school level.

“A disparity like that (regarding imprisonment), it makes society believe it’s normal when it’s anything but,” he said. “Society accepts it. If we start early, you can make a difference … African-American kids shouldn’t have to think they’re twice as likely to be suspended. People are people. We have more in common than we are different.”

Alexander also reiterated hopes to have a library built in Killona, a cause he’s been fighting for and that he believes would have a positive impact on students in the community.

“I’m not any closer to that than I was,” he said. “I truly believe it would help the parish as a whole. Our community doesn’t have a good resource where our students and parents can go sit down to learn things. All you have to do it pick a book and you learn something.

While addressing these issues will present a challenge for the board members, each noted plenty to look forward to in the coming year. The Rodney R. Lafon Performing Arts Center will begin taking shape this year, a process a consensus of board members found exciting to see.

Suffrin also noted the recent No. 3 ranking of the district among Louisiana school systems by the national website Niche as a morale boost to everyone and said the chance to continue to climb is an attractive prospect.

“I feel the system keeps thriving because everyone is so proactive,” Suffrin said. “Nobody is ever complacent with where we are.”

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