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Key group backs $40 million increase for public schools

February 20, 2018
By Will Sentell
Originally Posted on The Advocate

An influential task force Tuesday recommended a hike of about $40 million in basic state aid for public schools.

The assistance has been frozen for nine of the past 10 years amid state budget problems, and Gov. John Bel Edwards has endorsed another freeze for the 2018-19 school year.

After nine freezes in the past 10 years, news that basic state aid for public schools may be frozen yet again is sparking both resignation and…

But a panel of state and local education leaders, key lawmakers and others, including the governor's education adviser, said it is is vital the Legislature understands the financial plight of public schools.

"I know it is a difficult position for the Legislature, but I don't represent the Legislature," said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators and chief sponsor of the request.

"I represent children and schools, I represent teachers who are in the classrooms and the communities that need the money to educate their children," Meaux said.

The request is a long shot amid recurring state budget problems.

The Legislature began a special session on Monday to grapple with a roughly $1 billion shortfall for state services starting July 1.

The regular session begins on March 12, which is where the debate will play out on public school funding.

Task force members said their job is to spell out the needs of public schools even amid recurring financial problems.

Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, said the state faces a huge shortage of teachers while teacher pay has slipped about $1,700 below the regional average.

"And I understand we are trying to be fiscally conscious," Schum said. "But I don't know how we communicate to our legislators how important it is for us to have adequate funding for education if we don't ask for it."

The request was approved on a voice vote by the 27-member Minimum Foundation Program Task Force. The MFP is the formula used by the state to allocate $3.7 billion for the current school year.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is unlikely to recommend a hike in basic state aid for public schools, an aide to the governor said Tuesday.

The money helps finance teacher salaries and a wide range of day-to-day school operations, including textbooks and supplies.

About 700,000 students attend public schools in Louisiana.

Among those supporting the request was Donald Songy, the governor's education policy adviser and task force member.

Legislation that would authorize spending $3.7 billion for public schools for the 2017-18 academic year won final legislative approval Monday.

Songy said after the meeting that the Edwards administration would love to get behind such a hike if state dollars are available.

The motion to boost state aid — it would be a 1 percent increase — was made by Meaux as a substitute for one that recommended another freeze in state assistance.

The increase would raise state spending per student from $3,961 to about $4,000, according to officials of the state Department of Education.

Among the few opponents of the request was Brigitte Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Nieland said in the current budget environment, public schools are lucky they have avoided outright cuts in state aid. "I think the Legislature is keenly aware that schools would like to have extra dollars," she said.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, endorsed the request.

"I really think the idea of asking for more could be very important," Morrish told the group.

"I think it could be important to legislators who today are looking for reasons to change our budgeting process, the way we raise our revenue, and the revenue we need.

"It could be a very good tool in the tool chest. For us to just say we don't need any more money is probably not the right thing to do."

The lawmaker will be the Senate sponsor of any MFP request that Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sends to the Legislature next month.

State lawmakers can only accept or reject BESE's request but cannot change it.

Before the state was plagued by yearly budget problems public schools traditionally got a 2.75 percent increase, and sometimes more.

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and a task force member, suggested that the panel request a 2.75 percent boost again, which she called reasonable.

Others said such a request would be dead on arrival.