The Lafayette Parish School System spread its tail feathers Monday, hoping to attract suitors, AKA voters, willing to approve a .5 cent, 10-year sales tax on the April 29 ballot to fund facility improvements. Indeed, the school system made a colorful pitch outside the luncheon auditorium at the Cajundome Convention Center for the inaugural State of the LPSS luncheon — through displays of the school system’s STEM curricula (with an emphasis on robotics), its visual arts programming as well as performing arts (stellar showings by the Lafayette High jazz band and symphonic strings as well as a gorgeous, pitch-perfect performance of the national anthem by the LHS chorus). The school system even threw in the Pledge of Allegiance in four languages including French, Spanish and Mandarin as lagniappe.
Lafayette schools Superintendent Dr. Donald Aguillard was the keynote speaker for the IND Media-sponsored event, touting recent gains in the school system’s performance score in making a pitch not just for the sales tax proposition but for a tax-credit program that helps local businesses swap state income taxes for dollar-for-dollar contributions to early childhood education in the parish.
“I am single-mindedly and unwaveringly committed to improving the lives of students in the Lafayette Parish School System and in Lafayette Parish in particular,” Aguillard told attendees early in the program. “I also understand that LPSS is a part of an enterprise much bigger than one person or even this school board, and that we all have to work together to successfully educate and support students, and that can only be done through a team effort.”
Aguillard offered an overview of the ambitious, 10-year plan to move the school system ahead by 10 points over a four-year period when he was hired as super in early 2015 — a plan that resulted in a robust, 7.1-point jump after just the first full school year of the plan’s implementation; Lafayette Parish schools climbed from a district performance score of 89.2 to 96.3 to post an 8-spot jump into the Top 20 school districts in the state (and less than four points shy of the 100 threshold for an A rating). Eighty-five percent of public schools in the district improved their scores in the 2015-16 school year over the previous year.
The single largest price tag is $43 million in improvements at Lafayette High, the parish’s oldest high school and most populous school. The LHS project would remove 31 temporary classrooms. LHS is followed by construction of new school buildings to replace Prairie ($34 million) and Carencro Heights ($32 million) elementaries, doing away with a combined 46 temp class buildings on those current campuses. Other schools planned for construction projects to replace temp classrooms are Evangeline, Broadmoor, Alice Boucher, Ridge, Plantation, Woodvale, Duson, L. Leo Judice and Ossun elementary schools. Total price tag is $194.5 million with 248 temporary classrooms replaced.
“This represents a pathway to begin addressing the facility needs here in Lafayette Parish,” the superintendent said. “You will hear people perhaps say it is not enough. Why are we only addressing 60 percent of our temporary buildings? Why aren’t we asking for more? Why aren’t we planning to address all of it as quickly as possible?
“Here’s the reality: This board, this community is being asked to contribute something reasonable that has a chance of getting voters to accept. It’s not the end-all. Think of this as a phased approach to addressing facilities.”
Aguillard also touted a program, On Track by 5, that offers state tax credits up to $5,000 to local businesses, offering the businesses a dollar-for-dollar deduction in state income taxes in exchange for commensurate donations to Lafayette Parish’s Early Childhood Education Program. Too many children enter kindergarten, the super noted, unprepared, and thus begin falling behind their better-prepared peers from the very start of their educational careers. The goal of On Track by 5 is to ensure that children are at grade level in 4th and 8th and that they graduate high school in four years ready for college or the work force.
Aguillard encouraged business people at the event to stop by a table to get more information and an application to participate in the On Track by 5 tax credit program.
Near the end of the program, a video was projected showing a Lafayette Parish elementary school student slogging his way through a downpour to get to a temporary classroom. Aguillard noted that students getting soaked is a regular occurrence; students change into P.E. uniforms while their school uniforms bounce around in a dryer.
Aguillard closed the program with a question: “This is an opportunity for the citizens of Lafayette Parish to decide: Are we going to do something about facilities, and if so, is it going to be decided on April 29th?”