Free public schools are the quintessential American institution. They are our promise of a free and fair chance extended to all comers to succeed, regardless of differences in origin, ability or other personal characteristics. They give expression to the foundational values of our society, the most important of which is that in America all are equal and must be treated so by their government. Schools are often credited with creating and sustaining the great American middle class, with providing a ladder out of poverty, and with preparing “citizens” who understand their duties in a democratic society. School ratings are perhaps the single most sought-after measure for people thinking about relocating. Within a community they exercise a tidal influence on the housing choices of parents, who make sacrifices to ensure their children live in an area with “good” schools.
Public schools are one measure of a community’s investment in itself. A community that fails to invest in its public schools is anticipating its decline. Based on its continued failure to adequately fund its public schools, Lafayette is that community. Currently the 30,500 public school students in Lafayette attend classrooms that are, to put it bluntly, falling apart. Classrooms are bursting at the seams all over the parish. Lafayette High School, originally designed for 1,481 students, now has more than 2,300. Further damning, approximately 20 percent of Lafayette students attend school in temporary classrooms — noisy, decaying aluminum huts. A consulting firm hired to study the infrastructure needs of the school system in 2009 recommended a $1.1 billion fix. Yet nothing has happened, except for the stunning defeat (69 to 31 percent) of the school board’s 2011 property tax initiative to raise $561 million toward this end.
This reality was on everyone’s mind in the 2014 school board election, which, after a heated election cycle, saw an almost entirely new board replace the old board that was riven by strife and strikingly ineffective. Shortly after the Nov. 4 election, Superintendent Pat Cooper was dismissed in a 7-2 vote by the old board, clearing the way for the hiring of Don Aguillard from St. Mary Parish. The results Aguillard and his team have produced were evident in the 2016 District Performance Scores, which saw Lafayette rise a full 7 points from its 2015 score, (89.2 to a 96.3). This is clear evidence that with new leadership on the board — and perhaps in the superintendent’s office, although it is still early in Aguillard’s tenure — the district is rising and poised to do even better.
But the school board still cannot find the courage to even propose that Lafayette public schools be adequately funded and supported. The latest evidence of this failure was the decision by the Lafayette Parish School Board to sideline a proposed increase in property taxes and instead turn to a sales tax dedicated to schools. Why the change from a property tax to a sales tax? According to school board members who were quoted on the subject, their constituents “were far more supportive of a sales tax over a property tax.” According to The Advocate, board member Britt Latiolais noted that a sales tax is “a tax they feel everyone pays a share of.” While sales taxes are more popular than property or income taxes, they are problematic in several important respects. For one, sales taxes are regressive, costing lower-income residents more, proportionally, than their better-heeled neighbors. They are also more volatile than property taxes, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of the economy.
In Louisiana, parishes that fund their schools through reasonable property taxes boast of better performing schools, and, as lagniappe, more money back under the state’s Minimum Foundation Program formula. Lafayette residents currently pay 85.02 mills for property owners within municipalities, 86.55 mills without. Of that contribution, 33.56 mills go to public schools (about 39 percent). In St. Tammany by comparison, property owners are taxed between 105.59-165.48 mills, 68.18 mills going to support schools. By this measure, St. Tammany residents support their schools at over twice the level of Lafayette residents. The performance of St. Tammany schools is nearly always at the top of the Louisiana public school rating system.
Finally, Lafayette is 1 cent from its constitutional sales tax cap, while south Lafayette communities like Youngsville and Broussard are only one-half cent from theirs, not to mention that a half-cent tax with a 10-year duration of the type suggested would raise roughly $194 million, only enough to replace about half of the temporary classrooms. Despite an unloving public and crumbling infrastructure, Lafayette schools are performing and getting better. Now is the time to show that we believe in our schools, our students, our teachers and our superintendent by giving them the resources they need to make our public schools as good as they can be. It’s betting on ourselves and our future together.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected]