By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — House Republicans blocked passage Tuesday of a $3.8 billion Louisiana public school financing formula, supporting its teacher pay raises but objecting to a separate boost for school districts.
In a 9-5 party line vote, the House Education Committee refused the proposal submitted by Louisiana’s top school board for the 2019-20 year. Instead, lawmakers asked the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to strip out $39 million of the $140 million increase.
Republicans backed the decision. Democrats opposed it. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, recommended the full package of spending hikes, which the education board had unanimously approved.
House Republicans said they support the $101 million in pay raises contained in the formula increase: $1,000 for teachers and $500 for support staff such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers. But they objected to including an extra $39 million that districts could spend at their own discretion, questioning whether Louisiana can afford it.
“The pay raise seems to be everybody’s priority,” said Rep. Nancy Landry, the Lafayette Republican who chairs the committee.
Landry said her motion to send the proposal back to the education board, known as BESE, was aimed at protecting the pay raises. Lawmakers can support or reject the formula submitted by BESE but cannot change it.
If the board and lawmakers don’t agree on a new financing formula, the state continues to use the formula already on the books. That means the teacher and support worker pay raises would have to be funded separately in the budget, and wouldn’t become part of the permanent, annual formula. Landry suggested that could put the money at risk in the future.
“We want the pay raise to be a permanent pay raise,” she said.
Education officials and Democratic lawmakers defending the $39 million in block grant money for districts said the pay raises drive up other costs. They said retirement, technology and health expenses continue to rise while districts have received flat state financing for years.
“There are still additional costs that the school districts have to occur,” said Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat. “I don’t think we’re recognizing that.”
BESE President Gary Jones didn’t offer assurances that his board would reconsider its proposal and send a new recommendation to lawmakers.
“We’ll reflect on it for a while. We won’t make a hasty decision,” he said.
Edwards, running for reelection with teacher union support, said the pay raise is his top priority, the first step in what he described as a multiyear plan to bring teacher salaries to the Southern average. But in a statement he said the block grant money also “is necessary to support our school systems and our teachers, who often spend money out of their own pocket to buy supplies for their classrooms.”
Landry said lawmakers may add some of the $39 million into next year’s budget outside of the K-12 financing formula. House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, who attended the hearing, made no promises, however. He listed other budget gaps, and several Republican lawmakers talked of wanting to steer money to early childhood education programs instead.
Voting to send the formula back to the education board were Landry and Republican Reps. Beryl Amedee, of Houma; Steve Carter, of Baton Rouge; Rick Edmonds, of Baton Rouge; Julie Emerson, of Carencro; Reid Falconer, of Mandeville; Stephanie Hilferty, of New Orleans; Scott Simon, of Abita Springs; and Polly Thomas, of Metairie.
Opposing the motion were Smith and Democratic Reps. Joe Bouie, of New Orleans; Ken Brass, of Vacherie; Gary Carter, of New Orleans; and Walt Leger, of New Orleans.