On the Ballot

Tax for teacher raises addresses Jefferson Parish’s ‘Achilles heel’

By Drew Broach

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

April 26, 2019

Lyndsey Jackson teaches deaf children ages 3 to 5 how to communicate, to treat one another with respect and to learn, so that they’ll be ready for kindergarten. She spends part of the day on the classroom floor at Allen Ellender School in Marrero with “my kiddos.”

Part of her personal time is spent reading their evaluations, writing their individual education plans, helping them with their hearing aids – and attending their birthday parties.

“Our families holiday together. We Mardi Gras together,” Jackson said.

For this, Jefferson Parish pays Jackson, a 34-year-old Avondale resident who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, a salary in the mid-$40,000s. She didn’t choose this career for the money, she says, but in some respects it’s teachers such as Jackson whom school leaders say are leaving for better paying jobs in other school systems or outside of education.

Jefferson has lost about 1,500 teachers in the past three years, including 16 percent of all teachers in the 2017-18 academic year. One in four classes is led by an instructor who is not certified to teach in that subject or at that grade level, officials say.

To meet those challenges, elevate the school system’s overall academic grade from a C to an A in five years and make the parish more attractive to residents and businesses, the School Board wants voters to raise property taxes by 7.9 mills. The proposal is on the May 4 ballot; early voting ends Saturday (April 27).

The revenue, $28.8 million in the first year, when combined with $4.5 million from cutting other expenses, would give most qualified employees in Louisiana’s largest public school system a raise. Almost three-quarters of the money would go to teachers; educators in hard-to-fill positions would get extra stipends.

There’s more at stake than fattening teacher paychecks, proponents say. Business groups, some with members whose property tax bills would rise significantly, are solidly behind it because of what they see as the importance of a strong public school system for Jefferson as a whole. Tony Ligi, executive director of the Jefferson Business Council, calls the current school system an “Achilles heel in the future development of our parish.”

Resistance has come from several quarters in a parish long cool to property taxes. One objection is that the school system should cut spending at its central office instead of asking property owners to pay more. Another is that public schools don’t benefit adults without children still living under their roof and those who send their children to private schools. Jefferson Parish families enroll a higher percentage of children in private schools than all but seven of the 3,142 U.S. counties.

Tommy Childress, for example, a retired New Orleans police officer who lives in Metairie, said he sent two children to public school and paid tuition to educate two others in private school. All four are grown now.

“How long do you have to keep paying for this? All your life,” Childress said. “My days of using schools are over.”

The tax would add $117.71 to the bill for a homestead-exempt property valued at $224,000, the average sales price in Jefferson. For the owner of a $500,000 commercial property, the tax would cost $592.50.

School Superintendent Cade Brumley says a successful public system benefits everyone, even indirectly. Among the consequences: less crime, better health and health care, higher property values and good employees for businesses.

“You need a workforce,” Brumley said. Or as Jackson, the Ellender teacher, said: “We are the creators of every other profession.”

Central office expenses are a common target of tax opponents throughout Louisiana, Brumley said. Some are unavoidable: The federal and state governments require certain positions: nurses, compliance officers and coordinators for homeless students, for example. Cutting some others would leave teachers without a place to turn for help.

Brumley also said the administration eliminated 10 central office jobs last summer. It plans to cut five more this summer.

“We’re trying to be as tight as we can,” he said. “But there are legal requirements and societal requirements.”

At the same time that Jefferson voters consider raising taxes for employee pay, the Legislature is debating whether to raise teacher pay for all Louisiana public school systems. Jefferson teachers like the idea, to be sure, but the state raise would not make Jefferson more competitive with nearby school systems.

Of seven southeast Louisiana school systems, Jefferson’s starting pay for a teacher is now the lowest, $41,199, according to the independent Bureau of Governmental Research, which has endorsed the tax. If voters approve the May 4 tax increase, Jefferson’s would rise to $46,000, second only to Plaquemines Parish.

It was just 1½ years ago that Jefferson voters narrowly rejected an 8.45-mill property tax increase for across-the-board pay raises, one that the Bureau of Governmental Research opposed. In some sense, then, this is déjà vu.

In 2003, six months after voters rejected a tax increase for schools, the Jefferson School Board hired a new superintendent, Diane Roussel, who disdained the status quo and vowed to improve public education. With the backing of business leaders concerned about Jefferson’s economy, Roussel and board members crafted a new tax proposal, and voters agreed to pay more.

In 2018, four months after voters rejected its tax proposal, a School Board different from the one that hired Roussel picked a new superintendent, Brumley, who disdained the status quo and vowed to improve public education. With the backing of some of the same business leaders concerned about Jefferson’s economy, Brumley and board members crafted a new tax proposal and put it on the ballot.

Whether this one succeeds will be known May 4.

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