Give public schools $39 million

Published 7:28 pm Thursday, May 16, 2019

BATON ROUGE — Who would have thought a $39 million appropriation for public schools in Louisiana would become one of the few major sticking points in a proposed $30 billion state budget? Unfortunately, that happens to be reality at this point in the legislative session currently under way.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to give public school teachers a $1,000 annual pay increase and school support workers a $500 raise. Many Republicans agree, but GOP leaders in the state House decided to instead give teachers a $1,200 annual increase and support workers a $600 boost. But there is a catch.

So what’s the problem? The increases Edwards wants to give are included in the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) that funds 80 school districts in the state to the tune of $3.85 billion. However, the state budget approved by the House last week by a vote of 100-1 doesn’t include the $39 million that Edwards wants to give local school boards through the MFP.

The Republican House leaders had asked the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to revise its MFP request before the budget vote was taken and take out the $39 million it had included in the formula. BESE stayed with its earlier request.

If the Legislature sticks to the House plan, BESE would have to use the MFP that is currently in effect again next year. It doesn’t include the teacher and support worker raise money.

Teacher union and other education leaders told BESE members they were willing to risk the MFP dying in the Legislature, realizing that any pay raises they get outside the MFP would be limited to one year only. Edwards and those leaders want the raises in the MFP so they would be funded each year.

Leaders of education organizations said public schools have received only one general increase in the past decade and districts are grappling with rising costs of health insurance, retirement, workers compensation and Medicare.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said 70 percent of the $39 million would be spent in classrooms and 30 percent on other local school expenses.

Unlike its House counterparts, the Senate Education Committee and the full Senate approved the MFP submitted by BESE with only one vote against. Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, cast the only no vote in both places.

Appel said he believes the state budget should have sufficient funding ($86 million) for early childhood education (birth to age 3). Senators who voted for the MFP said they agreed. Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said legislators have had eight years to find money for early childhood education, and it hasn’t been done.

Some legislators not only refuse to raise additional funds for that program. They are also trying to eliminate the 0.45 percent increase in the state sales tax that was approved last year.

Edwards said Friday he has no doubt legislators will ultimately endorse his plan for teacher pay raises and school funding.

“I happen to believe there’s a majority of members in the House who agree with the BESE board,” Edwards said.

Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, steered the House budget to passage as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The Advocate reported that Henry indicated a willingness last Thursday to negotiate with the Senate and come to an MFP compromise. He also said he’s willing to potentially give some money to school districts “if they can justify why they need it.”

The reality that only one MFP increase was given in a decade should be justification enough. Public school leaders have also said why the money is needed. Those rising costs of health insurance, retirement, workers compensation and Medicare have probably totaled much more than the $39 million.

Indications are Republican leaders in the House don’t trust local school leaders to use the extra money wisely. They say more transparency is needed on how the money will be spent.

Edwards said Friday, “I would tell them (GOP leaders) that school board members are elected just like legislators. And the people in the school districts are going to hold them accountable as school board members. They are vested with the authority to run education in those districts.”

You also can’t help but wonder whether politics are playing a major role in the Republican decision not to fund the $39 million increase. After all, it is Edwards who made the request to give school boards the extra funds.

The Louisiana Republican Party and some of its legislative leaders have hammered Edwards for over three years. They have blamed the governor for everything that’s wrong with this state, conveniently forgetting it was a Republican governor who almost bankrupted the state over an eight-year period.

Our education system at all levels has struggled to recover, and the system has done well over the last 3 1/2 years that Edwards has been governor. Giving public schools that $39 million, the first increase in a decade, is a no-brainer.SCHOOLS NEED MONEY — The Louisiana Senate believes the state’s public schools deserve an additional $39 million, but the House didn’t include it in its proposed budget. A conflict may be on the horizon.

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