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School funding formula, teacher sick leave, school board term limits discussed

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 4:57 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana school boards and teacher unions lost an effort here Tuesday to derail the $3.4 billion Minimum Foundation Program formula for fiscal 2012-13 that allocates state education funds to local boards. 

The House Education Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the House floor for debate and final action. The Senate approved the formula 26-10 on Monday.

Committee approval came despite local boards’ concerns the use of public funds at nonpublic schools creates financial shortages at the local level. The MFP for the first time uses state and local funds for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program, which critics call student vouchers.

The MFP for the fourth-straight year remains unchanged. It had previously been increased annually by 2.75 percent. Local school board officials said increases in health care and other benefits have to be absorbed by local taxpayers when the MFP isn’t increased.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, is sponsor of the MFP resolution. He is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He said Louisiana is fortunate to keep its funding at the current level when many other states have had to cut those funds.

Charles Riddle, district attorney of Avoyelles Parish, spoke against approval of the MFP. He said he represents the Avoyelles Parish School Board and the vouchers are going to cost the board $800,000 in annual revenues.

Riddle said Avoyelles is one of five parishes under desegregation orders, and the loss of those funds will cause problems with the federal court system that is enforcing those orders.

The five parishes are facing unintended consequences, he said, and the committee should reject the MFP rather than affect the desegregation process.

Dwayne Lemoine, superintendent of the Avoyelles school system, said it has 6,000 students and the parish poverty level is at 86 percent. He talked about its old buildings, one of which survived the Great Flood of 1927.

The system had to borrow $5 million to improve its facilities and is a “D” school district, Lemoine said.

“Vouchers won’t benefit our students,” he said. “They won’t have school choice.” He was referring to the often-stated purpose of the governor’s school choice program.

Also speaking against approval of the MFP were local school board officials and leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

Gary Reed, a legislative consultant for the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the use of public funds at nonpublic schools creates constitutional and church vs. state issues.

Steve Monaghan, president of the LFT, said the MFP resolution was rushed through the process and its rejection wouldn’t create any problems. He said there is time for the formula to be reworked by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The state Constitution clearly mandates throughout that public funds should be used for public education, he said. Vouchers in use in New Orleans were financed through state appropriations, he said.

Monaghan said the issue will be decided in the courts. He talked about promoters constantly saying “money should follow the student.”

“That needs to be questioned,” he said.

Trimming extended sick leave for teachers

Legislation trimming the number of extended sick days for public school teachers was approved  by the House Education Committee.

Senate Bill 494 by Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, also reduces the salary percentage paid during extended sick leave and makes changes for sabbatical leave. He said the measure leaves the final decision with local school boards, calling it permissive legislation.

The committee, with an 11-5 vote, rejected an effort to kill the bill, which was reported favorable without objection. The bill goes to the House floor. The Senate earlier approved the measure 28-8.

Current law requires local school boards to permit teachers, school bus operators and other school employees to take a maximum of 90 days of extended sick leave in each six-year period. It can be used for personal illness or illness of an immediate family member when the employee has no remaining regular sick leave.

During such leave, those employees are paid 65 percent of the salary they were receiving when the sick leave began.

Appel’s bill reduces the 90-day extended sick leave period to 45 days and reduces the salary to 50 percent.

Current law says extended leave is granted when medically necessary for the employee or the immediate family member. The proposed law says the leave has to be a “medical necessity” for the employee to be absent for at least 10 consecutive work days.

Medical necessity is defined “as the result of a catastrophic illness or injury, which means a life-threatening, chronic or incapacitating condition of the employee or a member of his immediate family.”

Sabbatical leaves are granted to teachers for professional and cultural advancement or medical leave. They can be requested for two semesters after a teacher is employed for 12 consecutive semesters or for one semester after six consecutive semesters.

The proposed law says the local school board may, but isn’t required to, grant leave applications during fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13 and when state education funding isn’t increased by at least 2.75 percent, and when a local board has a deficit exceeding 5 percent and an unrestricted fund balance of less than 7.5 percent.

School boards have to honor any leave they approved prior to legislative approval of the bill.

Three officials with the Jefferson Parish School Board spoke in support of the legislation.

Dr. James Meza, the system’s superintendent, said his system is facing a $25 million to $29 million deficit next year and granted $24 million in sabbatical and sick leaves last year.

Some are illnesses, but they aren’t catastrophic, Meza said. He added the loss of teachers for a half-year also affects student achievement.

Mike Delesdernier, a board member, said 32,000 days were used by teachers in a school system that is graded “D.”

Brigitte Nieland with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry also spoke in support of the bill. She said it demonstrates a shift in focus to a student-oriented system.

Meladie Munch, president of the Jefferson Parish Federation of Teachers, said the loss of extended sick leave would force employees with serious illnesses to pay for their own health care coverage if they have to leave the system. She mentioned a teacher in her system who is dealing with diabetes and also having to care for a husband who needs a liver transplant.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the legislation changes the observance of Teacher Appreciation Week to Non-Appreciation Week. He also referred to supporters of the bill as “Ebenezer Scrooges,” the title character in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” who hates the annual observance.

Reps. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, and Dee Richard, I-Thibodaux, asked whether changing “shall” to “may” could result in local school boards granting zero extended sick leave days. Appel said it could.

Term limits for school board members

BATON ROUGE — Southwest Louisiana senators split their votes here Tuesday on a bill that would allow voters statewide to determine whether they want term limits for school board members.

House Bill 292 by Rep. Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula, was approved 20-16 and heads to the governor. The House earlier voted 62-35 for the legislation.

Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, voted for the bill. Sens. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, and John Smith, R-Leesville, were against.

Voters would decide during the presidential election on Nov. 6 whether they want term limits for the school board or boards in their parishes.

If term limits are approved, board members could serve only three consecutive four-year terms. Those limits would begin for members elected on or after Jan. 1, 2010.

The term limits are in line with those served by members of the Legislature and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, opposed the bill when it was heard by the House Governmental Affairs Committee. He said at the time that the November election is a mandate telling local governments what to do, and if voters approve term limits, “it’s over and done.”

“In our area, we have term limits, and they are our elections,” he said. “Local voters have a closer connection to public bodies, and term limits aren’t necessary.”

Supporters of the legislation said term limits empower people to run for office and help bring different ideas and new insight to public bodies.

School board term limits already exist in Jefferson and Lafayette parishes.

Opponents have said limiting terms of elected officials turns government over to bureaucrats who have the institutional knowledge to run the operations.

The bill wouldn’t apply to the Recovery School District that administers failing schools and to governing authorities of charter schools.

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