Funding an issue for BESE

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 30, 2005

BATON ROUGE &045;&045; A marathon meeting in front of a packed house wasn’t nearly enough to answer the most pressing questions now facing education in Louisiana.

Superintendents and top administrators from across the state listened intently for the first few hours as the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education talked themselves into circles in the wake of two major hurricanes. By the sixth hour the superintendents started leaving.

No one had all the answers they wanted about funding or accountability.

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Louisiana has 186,000 displaced public school students and 52,000 displaced private school ones. As of Friday, 37,553 of those students had enrolled in other Louisiana schools. Every district in the state has evacuees and 10 districts have more than 1,000 new students.

&uot;The receiving districts cannot afford the cost of increased loads,&uot; State Superintendent Cecil Picard said. &uot;No matter what we do at the state level, every district is facing financial collapse if we cannot secure federal money.&uot;

And ensuring that federal money was something no one sitting at the BESE table could do.

Picard is waiting out several federal bill proposals, saying he was hopeful a package providing up to $7,500 per displaced student would pass.

&uot;I call every day and let them know that the timing and funding is of utmost importance,&uot; he said. &uot;Louisiana can’t wait that long.&uot;

Eight school districts were directly impacted by Katrina, four of those may not reopen in the next 60 days if they open at all this year.

A representative from FEMA told board members that many of their current expenses would be reimbursable but couldn’t set a timetable. Schools receiving storm damage have to apply for FEMA assistance, meet with a team and fill out the paperwork to get funds. Other schools have been told to keep detailed accounts of their expenses.

The board also discussed sending state funds &045;&045; Minimum Foundation Program dollars &045;&045; from closed school districts to the districts where the students have relocated. But Jefferson Parish Superintendent Diane Roussel asked board members not to take any of her money.

&uot;We are reopening, but there are no funds coming in,&uot; Roussel said. &uot;Fifty percent of Jefferson Parish School’s income is based on sales tax.&uot;

Tax dollars that no longer exist, that is. Yet, Roussel is sure her district will recover with time and assistance.

&uot;We need (MFP money) now,&uot; she said. &uot;Hurricane Katrina has brought us a huge challenge, and we need to be able to do it financially.&uot;

Yet districts like St. Landry Parish, that gained 1,083 new students, and Concordia Parish, that gained more than 400 students, need that money too, some board members said.

Several board members proposed establishing a committee to determine exactly where funds need to go so when federal dollars do come, there will be organization.

&uot;I don’t pretend to have thought this out completely, and I don’t think anybody in this room has,&uot; board member Leslie Jacobs said. &uot;There’s no playbook for us to follow in this situation.&uot;

The board did make several policy changes for this year to accommodate circumstances brought on by Katrina and Rita including:

4Louisiana students displaced to schools out-of-state can still earn a Louisiana diploma from their home high school. Required courses not available at other schools will be waived.

4The required 177 days of class time was waived. School calendars will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

4The high stakes testing policy that prevents fourth- and eighth-graders from passing to the next grade without passing the LEAP was suspended.

4Maximum class sizes were raised from a 10 to one ratio for early childhood programs to a 20 to one ratio; from 26 students in kindergarten to third-grade classes to 28; and from 33 to 35 in fourth- through 12th-grades.

4Regulations on teacher certification were relaxed.

4Classes on the Louisiana Virtual School can now be accessed out-of-state and do no require a trained facilitator.

4Timelines for district fiscal reports were pushed back.

The board is also submitting a request to the U.S. Department of Education that No Child Left Behind regulations including School Performance Scores be relaxed this year. BESE is asking that only students enrolled in a district for two years be counted on the school’s overall improvement rankings.

Another request is being submitted to the state Board of Regents recommending that the state’s scholarship program TOPS be extending to those Louisiana students now attending school out of state and that curriculum requirements be waived.i