Funding for Harper renovation still in question

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The Webster Parish School Board is beginning to research ways to fund the extensive renovation of J.E. Harper Elementary School.

At this time, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dan Rawls says it’s too early to know where the funding
will come from.

During a special meeting at the school last week, Rawls listed several ways renovation of the school would be handled logistically, and board members also talked about the decrease in parish funding over the years.

“We have to worry about how much we’re going to put on our taxpayers,” Rawls said during the meeting, “and what can we do to remedy this situation as easily as possible, that’s safest for the kids, and do it in a fiscal management process that’s good for everybody.”

Board president Charles Strong says Webster Parish is a rural parish, not especially a wealthy one.

“We don’t have money to throw away at things,” he said. “We have spent the last several years trimming budgets so that we can live within our means as it is. The unfortunate fiscal side of it comes up even though we hate for it to. There are limits concerning the amount of money that can be bonded in a district, the amount of money that can be borrowed for construction. We need to be real careful about how we make these decisions.”

Board member Ronnie Broughton says a half cent sales tax was passed by the voters of district 6 which has been used for building.

“Part of the promise that we gave as board members to the voters is we’ve got to do something with the high school, we’ve got to do something with the junior high and the elementary schools will be next,” he said. “That’s what it was designed for; that’s what we promised. There’s three elementary schools, and Harper is in the worst need.”

Business and finance director Crevonne Odom says there are three sales taxes, two one-cent sales taxes and the one half-cent sales tax.

Board member John Madden backed up much of what other board members said throughout the evening saying the Minimum Foundation Program money – how the state funds school systems based on the number of students – has decreased over the last seven years. In 2008, according to his figures, Webster Parish schools’ total budget was around $10 million. In 2013, it was just over $4 million.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we have to do something,” he said, adding that approximately 28 percent of taxpayers – business and homeowner – carry the load in paying property taxes in the parish. “The statewide average of millages is a little over 107.8, and the Webster Parish average is a little over 103.3. We’re 29th out of 64 as far as population. We’re a rather poor parish, but the teachers are paid better.

“What I’m driving at is we’re paying our teachers well, although they may not think they are, but the people not under homestead exemption are being taxed heavily,” he continued. “I think the board will come up with some good recommendations.”

About 72 percent of homeowners fall under homestead exemption, which means they don’t pay property taxes or very little. Homestead exemption covers $75,000 worth of a homeowner’s property; anything over that is taxable.

At this time, Rawls will present the board with one quote at a time over the course of the next few months so they will have time to study and ask questions about each option and its cost.

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