June 9, 2017 10:53 AM

Superintendent Donald Aguillard, school board adjust to diminishing resources even as foes of public education continue to spread misinformation.

Photos by Robin May

The Lafayette Parish School Board recently slashed the transportation budget, cut dozens of bus routes and eliminated several positions in finalizing the 2017-18 budget. It came fresh on the heels of a stinging rebuke from voters, overwhelmingly in the unincorporated parish and small towns, who on April 29 rejected the school system’s proposed 10-year, half-cent sales tax for school facilities improvements.

“The board has tentatively adopted a budget and they chose not to recognize any increase in sales tax collection and also subsequently decided to recognize only a small portion of the property tax collection, the idea being that we live within our means,” Superintendent Donald Aguillard told The Independent during a recent sit-down interview at the Central Office. “So they adopted a budget of about $274.4 million. [LPSS Chief Financial Officer Billy] Guidry’s projection is that we’re going to bring in about $278 million, so presumably collections come in as predicted, the board will have about $4 million at the end of the upcoming fiscal year. What I believe they want to do is use that money to park somewhere for facility improvements.”

The school system will also end leases on roughly two dozen temporary classrooms — buildings that house two classrooms each — on a number of campuses to save $250,000 per year in fees. The savings will be put toward building a wing at an as-yet-undetermined campus where temporary classrooms have proliferated. But wings cost about $12 million, so the lease savings represent a pittance.

The teachers displaced by removal of those leased buildings will “rove,” according to Aguillard: They’ll be given a cart for their instructional materials and move around campus using classrooms that are otherwise intentionally left vacant for some periods to give other teachers a place to conduct planning and other activities.

This is the new normal in the Lafayette Parish School System: scrimping, saving, getting by — made harder to stomach when vocal pre-election opponents of the sales tax continue to argue that Lafayette schools are engorged on cash and the Central Office and school board are either mismanaging tax dollars or, more ominously, misappropriating them.

Dr. Donald Aguillard

A recent post to Facebook by a KPEL radio host, one of the most vocal opponents of the tax proposition ahead of the election, caught Aguillard’s eye — and ire. It was a theme trumpeted frequently in the election’s run-up: that tax collections for schools have ballooned over the last two decades, yet the student population has remained the same so, obviously, school system administrators are doing something wrong if not nefarious with our tax dollars.

“Once again,” the Facebook post reads, “the taxpayers are blamed for the mismanagement of the elected officials who have been given significant increases in property taxes and sales taxes over the past 20 years, e.g.: 1995 property taxes: $14 million; 2016 property taxes: $75.8 million. 1995 sales taxes: $33 million; 2016 sales taxes: $111 million. Meanwhile, there has been no increase in the number of students served. So again, the question: Where has all the money gone?”

“I have a Facebook page, and the posting by Carol Ross showed up about 10 days ago,” Aguillard said at our sit-down last week. “It was clearly after the election, and the information posted by Carol was a gross misrepresentation of today’s cost and revenue streams compared to 1995.

“The reality is, using several large line items, we can show where the money is being used in the system. There is no cash cow. There is no cushion where we have money left over that we can convert to facilities. We are really living day-to-day on a very, very lean budget.”

According to figures provided by CFO Guidry, which more or less comport with those Ross used in her Facebook post, property tax collections were $13.5 million in 1995 and were $69.2 million last year; sales tax collections were $36.1 million in ’95 and $111.3 million last year. The difference between total tax collections in 1995 and 2016 was $131 million dollars, and it’s true, the student population has hovered around 30,000 the entire time.

So where, as Ross rhetorically asks in suggesting the school system is wasting or mismanaging tax dollars, has all the money gone? The simple answer: salaries and benefits for educators, plus there are 122 more teachers in the system now than in 1995 — for special education, career and technical courses and other educational mandates approved by earlier boards and superintendents.

Teacher salaries have roughly doubled since 1995, and the state-mandated contributions the school system must make toward retirement and health benefits have risen sharply over the last two decades. Again, these are state-mandated percentages the LPSS must contribute to employees’ health-insurance and retirement accounts.

Salaries for teachers cost the school system $91 million more now than they did in 1995. Contributions to retirement accounts are up $32 million and contributions to health plans are up $25 million. That’s an increase in overhead over the last 20 years of $148 million dollars.

Now do the math: The school system is taking in $131 million more in sales and property taxes now compared to 1995 and its overhead in salaries and benefits has gone up $148 million dollars. That’s a negative $17 million difference in revenue versus expenses.

Another misrepresentation spun by opponents of the April 29 proposition is that the school system never needed temporary buildings to begin with — that school facilities in Lafayette have the capacity for 40,000 students. In fact, that’s true — if you cram 40 students into every classroom and have no empty classrooms for teachers to conduct planning and other curriculum-related tasks. But student-teacher ratios prevent this. The board recently upped the student-teacher ratio for high schools to 29:1; that is, 29 students maximum in a classroom with one teacher. The ratios are lower for middle and elementary schools and even lower for low-performing schools.

“When architects design schools they tend to design them such that the capacity is calculated at 80 percent of maximum capacity, because you have to have classrooms empty during free periods for teachers and things like that, so you don’t fill them up to 100 percent,” Aguillard notes. “But that’s not what [the anti-tax] logic is — it’s that our schools can hold 40,000 students.”

The school board gave opponents of the tax a gift with wording in the proposition, specifically the phrase “for any lawful purpose.” The opponents spun this to mean the tax wasn’t dedicated — that the school board could, once the money became available, direct it towards anything. This anti-tax canard ignored the fact that the board had previously approved a resolution spelling out what the tax was dedicated to: replacing temporary classrooms with wings and other improvements on nine elementary school campuses, as well as replacing two elementary schools and doing major improvements to Lafayette High. It was all spelled out in the resolution, but it was wordy.

“The challenge always had been to try to get the proposition language down to under 200 words — that’s the limit. And so it was impossible to put 12 schools listed in the proposition,” Aguillard laments. “So the challenge was to try to get all the legalese in the proposition. It was seen by board, it was adopted by the board, it was not called to anybody’s attention through the public comment series. And yet it became a rallying cry for ‘We can’t trust the board. This is not a clear, dedicated tax.’”

Opponents also suggested, spuriously, that the cost of each replacement classroom came to $1 million — a ridiculously effective simplification that ignored that fact that the facilities plan also called for expanding cafeterias and administrative areas along with other major construction; the plan was never simply a one-for-one brick-and-mortar classroom replacing a temp building.

Much of this righteous work of misrepresentation was conducted on social media by Michael Lunsford, a former employee of IND Media (parent company of The Independent) who, by the way, lives in St. Martin Parish, pays no Lafayette Parish property taxes and whose own children are in private school. But Lunsford appears to be priming the pump for a run at public office and was happy to step into the Lafayette school tax debate with his righteous distortions and dissembling logic.

And on social media, in the comment threads beneath the misleading protestations of Ross and Lunsford, lurks a sentiment the anti-tax forces in American political life have successfully cultivated for decades: that public servants are at best incompetent if not lazy and lackadaisical with tax dollars — an insinuation that rubs this husband of a public school teacher in the wrongest of ways.

“There’s no truth to that,” Aguillard counters. “The Central Office went through the exercise in the budget process of cutting our travel budget to attend professional conferences, cutting our supply budget, cutting our various accounts to save money and redirect those monies to those classrooms; we’re trying to protect the classroom teacher as much as we can.

“We’re cutting back on equipment, supplies, textbook purchases, travel — things like that. We’re trying to be as cost-effective as we can. We have employees who come to work an hour before the start time and work well after the end time every day — they’re dedicated professionals in the Central Office and in the support buildings.

“We’re doing everything we can to help Lafayette become an A-rated school system. The board is completely transparent, and we’re trying to be fiscally responsible — we’re trying to demonstrate we can live within our means, and at some point we’re going to have to go back before the voters and see if we can do a better job articulating the need and see if we can get the support.”