Jefferson Parish public schools at risk of more layoffs, eventual campus closings

“This is a growing statewide problem as Louisiana cut $500,000,000 from its education budget this year. Yet, we continually wonder why we rank at the bottom of many important lists. How can we attract more businesses and Fortune 500 companies when we can’t even promise them that their children will get a great education, let alone an adequate one? It’s time we reverse this trend and I’ll help us to start rising to the top.” ~ Russ Wise

Jefferson Parish public schools at risk of more layoffs, eventual campus closings

Published: Tuesday, November 01, 2011, 6:50 PM Updated: Tuesday, November 01, 2011, 7:17 PM
Mark Waller, The Times-Picayune By Mark Waller, The

After a summer spent jettisoning almost $23 million from Jefferson Parish public school spending, including teacher layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes, class size increases and assistant principal reductions, the School Board continues grappling with persistent financial strains, which could prompt it this week to issue a fresh layoff alert. Acting Superintendent James Meza is recommending a reduction in force notice because so far this school year teacher salary totals are exceeding expectations.

The board could endorse the notice on Thursday, with layoffs possibly coming in January.

In the board’s meeting agenda, Meza also announces he has formed a committee to study closing and consolidating schools as a longer-term way to address inefficiencies in the way the system uses its resources.

While the school system is benefiting from attracting about 600 more students overall for 2011-12, giving it about 46,000 students and $1.5 million more in state money granted on a per-student basis, teacher pay is running $3 million higher than budget planners anticipated and creating a $1.5 million gap.

Under its own policy, the board must warn employees about potential layoffs at least 45 days in advance. If more layoffs take place, they would likely coincide with the start of the second semester in January.

The overage on teacher salaries, Meza said Tuesday, has come into focus as enrollment patterns settle for the academic year. School officials now are finding specific classrooms attracting fewer students than expected and identifying ways to redistribute teacher jobs, he said.

“You may have too many teachers in a certain content area or grade level because of enrollment level shifts,” Meza said. “We have to do a mid-year adjustment that’s more reflective of the current enrollment.”

He said there is still a chance the schools can avoid a second round of layoffs in less than a year as officials examine other ongoing changes in costs and revenue. “I’m hoping this is just a precautionary measure,” issuing the layoff alert, he said.

If layoffs are unavoidable, he said central office positions or any jobs not directly tied to the proceedings inside classrooms will be his first target. He said he’ll look for cuts that provide an early start on balancing the 2012-13 budget and possibly complement a central administration overhaul he plans for 2012.

“We need to right-size the district so our salaries don’t continue bringing us into deficit,” Meza said. Salaries and benefits claim almost 90 percent of the school system’s general fund budget.

Looking to next school year, officials are bracing for an expected $12 million shortfall fueled by rising health insurance costs, retirement costs and other challenges.

Meza said he is convening a committee of administrators and consultants to design standards for deciding which schools to close or merge next year or beyond and suggest how many campuses the system needs to trim. The committee is supposed to present its criteria by January and then turn its attention to identifying specific schools, which could be announced in the spring.

Initially, closing schools might not save large slices relative to the system’s $407 million budget because teachers would follow students to other locations. As years pass, however, savings could accumulate in spared maintenance and insurance costs, especially for the oldest buildings, Meza said. The school system might be able to cut some expenses by turning campuses over to charter school operators, although it likely would still have to cover major maintenance on buildings it owns, he said. Eventually, the system could raise money by selling properties.

“As we know, closure of schools is a very traumatic event,” Meza said. “What appears to be a good business decision is not necessarily perceived as a good decision by the families.”

Meza said parents and the public will get opportunities to voice their concerns in public hearings. And he said a key element will be sending students to higher ranking schools.

“Performance is going to be a factor,” he said. “It’s not just going to be economics. It’s not just going to be geographic location.”

He said schools smaller than 400 students are less economical to operate, setting up small schools with low test scores as the most likely closure targets.

The board meets at 5 p.m. at Alfred Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School in Kenner.

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