FIRST IN PRINT: Voters to decide school maintenance tax renewal; Early voting starts Saturday

DEIDRE CRUSE

Passage of a 6.22 mill maintenance tax up for renewal at the April 30 election will keep more teachers in local classrooms, and keep those classes air-conditioned, according to School Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr.

Early voting on the property tax renewal opens from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday (April 16) at the Iberville Registrar of Voters' Office. It will continue from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday (April 18-23) next week. The parishwide tax is the only issue on the April 30 ballot.

The maintenance tax produces some $2.4 million a year -- only a portion of the $8 million appropriated to pay for utilities, insurance, repairs and maintenance, and custodial personnel, plus buy all the janitorial and grounds supplies and equipment they need to keep the parish's nine public schools and the School Board's Central Office up and running.

The tax is supplemented by some $1.8 million from a separate 4.84 mill maintenance tax voters renewed to years ago, plus money from the school system's general fund, according to Chief Financial Officer Jolain Landry, who provided the figures used in this report.

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The figures on maintenance costs showed the system's utility bill alone at more than $1.6 million.

The utility bill, as well as insurance janitorial, maintenance and other costs, are expected to rise as more new school facilities that are part of the current $49 million construction program come on line.

Before the latest construction, the school system had 1,036,000 square feet of buildings. The construction program will add another 209,000 square feet of space.

The proceeds of the maintenance tax are key to the daily operation of the school system, said Patrick Norris, who manages construction program.

“This is like our bread and butter,” Norris said. “This is our day to day operations [funding].”

Currently, the school system is replacing heating and air conditioning units at the older parish schools, all built or fully remodeled in a $20 million construction program completed in the early 1990s.

“That's what we're faced with now,” Landry said. “We're at end of life on our equipment.”

Norris said that new air conditioning units were scheduled to be installed at the Math, Science and Arts Academy-West, Iberville Elementary School and Crescent Elementary and Junior High School this spring.

“We're constantly moving forward,” he said. “The bulk of our complaints from our customers are about mechanical issues.”

New cooling towers are scheduled for installation at Iberville Elementary and MSA-West this summer, he said. Landry priced the work at Iberville Elementary at $600,000.

“You may not have air conditioning for these kids,” Dr. Cancienne said, should the tax fail, “so it does impact teaching and learning.”

The larger problem is that the school officials already face having to make $1.5 million in cuts to balance next year's budget, even if the tax is renewed, the superintendent said. With 70 percent of the school system's dollars spent for personnel costs, he said, that will mean a reduction in force.

Cuts would have to go even deeper if the system loses the $2.4 million from the maintenance tax, Cancienne said.

“I see a deeper impact on the classroom,” he said, since the school system probably would have to cut more teaching positions and increase class sizes.

The Iberville school system has an average class size of 20 students. State law allows larger classes, up to 26 students per class in grades K-3 and up to 33 in grades 4-12.

The School Board must make additional cuts to pay for another round of increases required by state retirement systems for school personnel, the officials said. For the 2010-11 budget year, retirement costs increased by $1.7 million. In the next budget, they will go up by another $1.2 million. The school system also expects cuts in the state's Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), which provides funding for local school systems.

Next year's increase in retirement contributions include some $200,000 in increases for maintenance personnel, Landry noted. The School Board's contribution to their salaries will rise by 28 percent.

Additionally, the school system needs to hire a specialist in heating and air conditioning systems, Cancienne said.