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Sunday, March 24, 2019

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Members reconsider reducing Lafourche School Board’s size

Members reconsider reducing Lafourche School Board’s size

Members are again considering downsizing the Lafourche School Board in an effort to save money after parish voters rejected a one-cent sales tax increase that would have boosted employee salaries.

Critics of the tax proposal, which failed by 19 votes April 29, cited the board’s failure to reduce its size as one of the reasons. Supporters of the move have said it would show the board is willing to make sacrifices and cut costs just as it has asked its employees to do.

Board members have discussed the issue for years and voted in July against cutting the number of members from 15 to nine. The vote was 8-6, with one member absent. The board also voted in 2012 against reducing its size and making its nine voting districts the same as the Parish Council’s.

Cutting six members would save parish taxpayers about $58,000 a year, officials said. Board members receive a salary of $800 a month.

Former member Ronald Pere, a proponent of reducing the board’s size, estimated the board would save another $105,000 per year in indirect costs.

Nicole Granier, mother of a child at Chackbay Elementary and two children expected to attend in the future, asked the board to reconsider the reduction at a special meeting May 9.

“Why can’t we do that now?” Granier asked. “Now that the vote didn’t pass, I would like for this to come up for reconsideration. ... It may not save all jobs, but it could save one, and that can make a very big difference in our community.”

Board member Marian Fertitta said at the meeting that she had spoken to many residents who share Granier’s concerns. Fertitta suggested the board look into putting the decision on the ballot so parish voters can decide.

In interviews, several board members said they also favor letting voters decide.

Member Brooke Huddleston said she voted against the proposal last summer because she was concerned south Lafourche voters would lose representation on a smaller board. But after talking with constituents, she said, she has softened that stance.

“I believe the public has spoken in saying they want the board smaller, and they feel they’d be OK with two representatives instead of four,” Huddleston said. “From Thibodaux through the Leeville-Fourchon area, they feel it’s chaotic and too many, and they feel their voices could be heard with less board members.”

Huddleston said she hasn’t run into a single person who thinks the board should remain at 15 members. She said the matter should be decided by a vote of the people.

“I did vote against it, but from what I’ve heard, I believe it should be a vote to the people,” said Huddleston. “I would vote to put it to the people.”

At the special meeting, board member Gregg Stall, a proponent of the reduction, said the failed sales tax increase taught the board something.

“If we want to ever get more revenue from our constituents, we’re going to have to tighten our belts and eliminate those types of wastes,” Stall said. “Our duties have diminished to such a degree to where 15 is absurd. It really is. One way or another, by the time the next term comes, we have to cut down to nine board members.”

Board member Julie Breaux, who voted against the reduction last summer, said that she thinks the board needs to look at solutions other than a reduction of representation.

Gary Foret, also an opponent of the reduction, said the board should consider cutting its pay before cutting its membership.

“If saving money is the true reason for again pushing to reduce the board size, then I’d support reducing the stipend by $300 a month, resulting in the same ... annual savings,” Foret said.

Ray Bernard, who voted for the reduction last summer, said he would support doing so again. He said the board should keep its options open for a steeper reduction in size, such as to seven or five members. Bernard, too, said he would support putting the issue on the ballot.

Superintendent Jo Ann Matthews said at the special meeting that she would gather information from the board’s attorney, Pat Amedee. Officials said Amedee is still looking into the legalities of such an election. Amedee declined to comment for this story.

Amedee told members last summer that it’s unclear whether the board can legally decrease its size. He said one state law requires school boards to be the largest they can possibly be and that no statutes refer to a decrease.

By a 2-to-1 margin, Terrebonne Parish voters decided in 2000 to reduce their School Board from 15 members to nine, with the smaller board taking office the following year.

Among legal hurdles in Terrebonne was a provision in the state constitution that says school boards have the sole authority to reduce their size. It took a new state law that set up a petition process to put the issue on the ballot parishwide.

In Terrebonne, the School Board agreed to redraw its voting district boundaries to coincide with those of the nine Parish Council seats.

If it does reduce its size, the Lafourche School Board would also face a similar decision on whether its districts will be the same as the nine-member Parish Council’s.

Here’s how members voted in July on reducing the Lafourche School Board from 15 members to nine:

For: Ray Bernard, Mary Breaud, Dennis Chiasson, Fertitta, Pere and Stall.

Against: Louis Thibodaux, Huddleston, Richmond Boyd, Foret, Julie Breaux, Clyde Duplantis, Ann Sanamo and Calvin Duet

Absent: Al Archer.

Pere resigned last month, saying he and his wife planned to move to an assisted living home outside his Raceland-area district. Raymond Toups will fill his position until an election can be held in October.

Efforts in recent days to reach the other Lafourche School Board members for this story were unsuccessful.