St. Charles school district bracing for possible budget cuts on state and federal levels

Changes could include larger number of students per classroom

With school systems facing the prospect of potentially significant budget cuts on both the state and federal levels, St. Charles Parish Public Schools Superintendent Felecia Gomez-Walker says the School Board continues to “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education announced Title II funds will be cut, representing a loss of $384,978 to the school system. Gomez-Walker said the school district is making their upcoming plans as if that cut will happen.

Title II money, she said, funds the salaries of six classroom teachers, as well as some aspects of staff development. It has been utilized to place each of those teachers at the parish’s elementary schools with kindergarten through second or through fifth grades; they serve as “class-size reduction” faculty, allowing the schools to reduce the number of students with a higher-than -optimal teacher-pupil ratio. At the elementary level, the school system aims for a 20-to-1 teacher-to-pupil ratio (in each class) in order to allow each student ample attention.

Gomez-Walker said the school system is planning as if the Title II cuts are going into effect, and thus those teachers would be reassigned to other duties.

“It’s important for us to keep our classes at a certain level (in terms of number of students),” Gomez-Walker said. “It also includes other kinds of teachers like some interventionists. You won’t always see only 20 students in a classroom, but we rarely go over 20 to 25.”

As things stand now, an additional 3 percent of Title I funds that is historically earmarked to support students who live in poverty could also be an issue. Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White initially stated his intent to redirect that money into a competitive grant and to school districts where students are struggling. That would have represented a loss of $52,000 to the St. Charles School District.

However, that proposed idea was met with protest from many of the state’s school district superintendents. Of the state’s 69 superintendents, Gomez-Walker said, 61 wrote White asking to delay submission of the Every Student Succeeds Act plan and that the 3 percent should still be dedicated to local districts. The state agreed to relent on the initial proposal, but with the provision that the 3 percent be used in the way the Louisiana Department of Education determines.

Gomez-Walker said Title I funds in St. Charles Parish have been dedicated to the system’s reading recovery program for first graders, citing a belief that intervention with struggling readers at that age gives those students a better chance of success as they progress through school.

“Our position is that while we are an A-rated district, we still have struggling students,” Gomez-Walker said. “So, rather than siphon that money and redirect it to districts that maybe are not rated as an A district or districts that have D and F schools, in order to support those schools, we should be allowed to keep that three percent so we can dedicate that money to our struggling students.

“It’s the 3 percent we have been getting … that’s what we want. We want to continue receiving that 3 percent.”

The ongoing legislative session at the state level, meanwhile, is also on the school system’s radar.

The inventory tax is one of the revenue sources that has been discussed and could be affected, and any shift to that funding could make major waves.

“For St. Charles Parish, that equates to about 15 million dollars. That would have quite an impact on the school system,” Gomez-Walker said. “Lots of options are being proposed … of course, we are going to advocate for our school system.”

The upcoming vote April 29 for the renewal of two existing millages (general fund maintenance and construction fund) that bring in a bulk of revenue for the schools, she said, is the chief concern for now.  Money generated from the general fund millage is utilized to pay the salaries of 714 of the parish’s teachers.  In addition, the salaries and benefits of the schools’ maintenance workers have been covered by the construction fund.

Gomez-Walker said the loss of that revenue wouldn’t result in the cutting of those 714 teachers and other personnel — the school system employs just over 800 teachers, she noted — but that the number serves as a gauge of the kind of deep cuts that would become necessary if that funding were to dry up.

“It’s not a bond issue, which is designed for enhancements, construction projects and facility modifications,” Gomez-Walker said. “This is much more important, because it represents the preservation of the public school system as we know it in St. Charles Parish. This is predictable revenue, and in a time of a lot of unpredictability, it is very important for us to get approval from our public to maintain our school system at the level it is now.”

With so much money up in the air, Gomez-Walker said an even greater emphasis has gone toward evaluating programs within the school district. She said the School Board has been conducting quarterly budget review meetings and evaluating school programs “to establish priorities, if that time ever comes (where program cuts are necessary).”

”Hopefully it won’t, but we’ve been looking carefully at budget,” she said.

Through it all, the goal is to continue to maintain the quality of the parish’s school system, which has maintained an “A” rating as per the Louisiana Department of Education. For the 2015-16 school year, 10 of the district’s 15 schools earned an A rating.

“But we still want to maintain the quality of school system that we have now, because public education is becoming more and more competitive with the whole focus on charter schools, vouchers … we know some of that money will be siphoned from traditional public schools in order to be reallocated to charters and vouchers, so we have to be very competitive,” Gomez-Walker said.

“In St. Charles Parish, we afford our students a very comprehensive education. We talk about academics, but also athletics and the arts and we’ve been able to maintain all of that at a very high level.”

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