Sup't looks for ways to close spending gap; reduction in force coming

Deidre Cruse, Governmental Reporter

School Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. notified the School Board last week that he would request an official notification of a  “reduction in force” to close a $4 million gap in the school system's projected budget for 2011-12.

The salaries and benefits of school employees make up 88 percent of the system's spending – $37 million of an estimated $43 million spending plan, he said in a memo.

Meanwhile, funding currently is estimated at $38 million, though there could be a cut in money from the state's Minimum Foundation Program (MFP).

“Unfortunately, even if the district receives the same amount [sic] of MFP dollars, the district costs continue to rise, placing a burden on the budget,” he said.

The projections of estimated funding include $14.1 million from the state, $14.3 million in local property taxes, $8.6 million in local sales taxes and $1 million from other revenue sources, including interest payments, Medicaid reimbursements and non-public transportation reimbursements.

According to Cancienne, overstaffing in certain academic areas created the $4 million gap; $250,000 from the general fund to cover even the streamlined costs of the Reading First Program, which also drains federal dollars, and a four percent, or $1 million, increase in the system's contribution to the state retirement system.

Personnel and Instruction Coordinator Brandie Blanchard told the School Board Monday night that the increased contribution to the retirement system was on top of an increase of more than $1.2 million last year.

To solve the problem, Cancienne recommends dissolving the positions of Reading First coaches and interventionists to save more than $250,000 and to free up federal funds.

He said he would make final recommendations for a reduction in force at the board's meeting in March.

School Board Member Darlene Ourso of White Castle said she was concerned that the school system would “have nice buildings and [not] have teachers teaching in those buildings. She asked about the projected cost of operating the facilities being built in the current $53 million constructed program.

Cancienne addressed the issue in his memo:

“As board members, please be reminded that budgets are comprised of funding sources that are, by law, for specific purposes. Money acquired from taxes passed, teacher pay increases, or buildings and maintenance cannot be used for personnel salaries.

“It may seem foolish to the public that the district is in a position of RIF [reduction in force] and at the same tie is expanding buildings. However, with your understanding of school budgets and the sources of revenue, you will be able to explain and give your constituents accurate information and lessen the stress and confusion.”

Cancienne said some personnel costs might be covered by the new federal grant. The School System has been awarded more than $7 million in federal funds through the five-year TIF Program, and expects the amount to grow to $10.5 million.

“Do note that Iberville Parish has secured a TIF [Teacher Incentive Fund] grant that will require master teachers whose salaries and benefits will be paid through the TIF grant and federal funds and will lessen the number of positions that will need to be cut,” the superintendent said.

Alnita Miller, a principal whom Cancienne appointed as grant director, told the board Iberville Parish is one of only 62 applicants in the nation to receive a TIF grant – and is the only system in the state and one of only 11 school systems nationwide to receive a research grant designed to show whether or not rewarding excellence in teaching produces gains in the classroom.

“We just had a great thing come to our parish, and now we're having to make cuts,” said School Board Member Brian S. Willis of Plaquemine.

Willis said public school enrollment is up for the first time in 25 years, and that new students mean the need for additional teachers. The 392 students brought into the system to the Math, Science and Arts Academy program required an additional 20 teachers this year, Blanchard noted.

Ourso also questioned cutting back on programs, such as Reading First, which are working.

“We need to keep what's working for our young kids,” she said.