School board agrees to $5 million in cuts; 35 employees laid off

Deidre Cruse

The Iberville Parish School Board on Monday agreed in a 12-3 vote to lay off or not replace 100 of its employees as part of a plan to close a $5 million deficit.

Thirty-five teachers and administrators will lose their jobs in the “reduction in force,” or RIF, while top district positions were abolished and their occupants reassigned to lower-paid work. The plan also includes freezing step increases for all employees.

“Twenty-five percent of our employees are losing their job,” said School Board Member Darlene Ourso of White Castle, one of those who opposed the school superintendent's cost cuts. She asked for a special meeting for the board to look for other ways to save money.

“We could easily make up $2.5 million by doing one thing, and that is cutting White Castle High School,” Board Member Tom Delahaye of Plaquemine said.

Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. said it was Phase I of his cost-cutting proposals. In Phase II, he said he must find another $2.4 million to cover the loss of a 6.22 mill school maintenance tax renewal that voters rejected April 30.

His ideas for the further cuts include freezing pay increases for all school employees, consolidating schools and setting school air conditioner thermostats at no lower than 78 degrees.

The School Board has to wait six months, or at least until the November election to propose the renewal again, Chief Financial Jolain Babin said. Otherwise, the tax will expire June 30, 2012.

“I don't know if we should go back out because the people have spoken,” Dr. Cancienne said.

The School Board already was facing having to make the $5 million in cuts because of increases in contributions to employee retirement systems and cuts in state and federal funds.

Under the adopted plan, two top positions that the superintendent-- executive directors reporting directly to Cancienne -- were eliminated. These were positions Cancienne had created.

One, was filled by Elvis J. Cavalier until his promotion to chief academic officer, was vacant. Cavalier heads the Iberville Math, Science and Arts Academy, and now will take over at Plaquemine High School, where Principal Maria Delouise has been reassigned as the school's librarian. (The reasons for Delouise's contract not being renewed are confidential, the superintendent said.)

The other was held by Janet Marionneaux, who has been reassigned to a lower-paid position as a gifted teacher. Marionneaux questioned why the board was faced with such a large gap when its local property and sales tax revenues have grown by nearly 83 percent over the past five years, including record sales tax collections last year.

Iberville Parish is collecting 241 percent in local taxes per pupil relative to the state average, she said; its general fund balance as a percentage of revenues was 44.45 percent, when the state considers 7.5 percent or more to be excellent.

“Yet, as a district, we are laying people off, reducing the salaries of many employees even though they are not being paid from the general fund...” she said. “What other cuts have [sic] this system made? Have there been cuts in travel, computer purchases? Contracts? Construction?

“Yes, I am being affected, but so are many other employees and their families, and is it really necessary at this time,” Marionneaux asked. “I urge you to review all budgets carefully before you make this decision that will impact the lives of many...not just the employees, but students and parents as well, and ultimately, the entire district.”

School employees attending the meeting applauded Marionneaux.

Under questioning by Ourso, Personnel Coordinator Brandie Blanchard, who assumed some of Marionneaux's executive director duties, said only 35 of the positions were part of the reduction in force. The other positions were those of retirees who were not being and temporary positions that were being eliminated.

“This is about kids,” Ourso said. “It's not about buildings.” She asked how the School Board could cut 100 positions without affecting students.

Delahaye said it was easy to be against the cuts Cancienne proposed, but that he had seen no alternative from Ourso and others against the plan.

“Put your name on the line to make up this $5 million,” Delahaye told Ourso. “...It takes courage to put this in writing.”

Delahaye said board members who did not want to make any cuts were forcing other board members into backing the unpopular reductions rather than risk running the school system into bankruptcy.

Only board members Pamela George of Grosse Tete and Dorothy R. Sansoni of Plaquemine voted with Ourso for a special meeting to look for other ways to balance the budget, and against the superintendent's recommendations.

Cancienne distributed a list of cost-saving ideas he was looking at for the next round of cuts.

In addition to the pay freeze, school consolidation and cutting back on air conditioning, he included having teachers perform substitute teaching duties, discontinuing travel allowances for supervisors, moving money from local banks to other institutions, consolidating bus routes, charging rental fees for the Plaquemine High football field, reducing equipment use, addressing only necessary maintenance requests (such as fire alarms, sewer problems, life safety issues and power outages), and privatizing positions in transportation, janitorial services, food services and student support  (social workers, psychologist and therapist.)