School system feels financial pinch as school year opens

Deidre Cruse

“It's a down experience,” Iberville School Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. said in an interview last week. “It's a tragedy what's going on in the state and public education.”

The generally upbeat Dr. Cancienne is lamenting the necessity to cut 100 positions , including those of 32 employees who were laid off under the school system's “reduction in force” policy. Also at Cancienne's recommendation, the School Board transferred 63 teachers to fill gaps in the elementary education ranks and meet other staffing requirements.

“We had to reduce the size of the Central Office,” he said, by about five positions. “Before we cut classrooms, we cut the Central Office.”

“It's very disconcerting to have to do this to our staff,” he said. “There is a general feeling of remorse...It will not impede our desire to hunker down and focus on our classrooms.”

“Those positions will result in $1 million in savings,” noted Brandie Blanchard, the system's personnel and instructional coordinator.

That is the same amount of money the school system will have to pay in additional contributions to employees' retirement system, Chief Financial Officer Jolain Landry said. She said it is similar to the increase last year, which cost Iberville an additional $1.6 million.

The state systems are passing on their unfunded liabilities to local school systems. Contributions for teachers will go up from 20 percent to 24 percent of payroll this year, and contributions for other school employees, from 24 to 28 percent.

She is expecting health insurance premiums to go up as well and higher property insurance to cover all the additional school facilities coming on line.

The system's utility bill is going up as the new facilities go into use and utility prices rise, but Project Manager Patrick Norris said he and the maintenance staff have shaved some $300,000 off the cost by “fine-tuning our energy management system.”

“That's a substantial cut,” Norris said. “Two years prior, I had projected that we could save $200,000 to $250,000 as a target that we should be able to achieve.”

At the same time, however, the school system will have its state Minimum Foundation Formula (MFP) funding cut this year, despite the additional students entering local schools over the past two years.

State reduces payments to “rich” parishes with healthy industrial tax bases like Iberville when their local tax revenues rise. Industrial construction projects have given Iberville Parish local sales tax revenues at record levels for several consecutive years.

“We are penalized in our funding when our sales taxes are high,”  Landry said. “We are no better off than we were last year, despite the additional students.”

State and federal grant funding also is being cut, Landry said, though by how much is as yet unknown.

“It makes it very difficult to write a budget,” she said.

Nevertheless, the chief financial officer will present a budget for the new fiscal year to the School Board next week.

“We are being over-conservative, not over-hiring,” the superintendent said. “Ms. Landry is challenging us to cut $5 million.”

The proposed $40 million operating budget would use $6 million from the School Board's fund balance to finance the last of the school system's current construction program, Cancienne said. It would reduce the cash on hand from $20 million to $14 million, “about a 35 percent fund balance, which the auditors say is outstanding,” he said.

Landry said they have been able to put more money into the schools for Title I students, those who are educationally or economically disadvantaged.

“All our focus and our energy has to be on targeted instruction,” the superintendent said. “...We are in the process of identifying where students are and providing immediate intervention to help students reach a level of proficiency.”

Dr. Cancienne said he is encouraged that the school system is “better planned and designed, both programmatically and fiscally.”

“We are more of a real system where all the parts work together,” he said, to produce efficiency and effectiveness.

But, he added, “It's not euphoria around here. There are a few choice words about me, but everybody's got to do more.”