Baton Rouge school finance much better than estimates, but federal COVID money being spent | Education

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system looks to end the year in a significantly better financial position than anticipated, but the long term prognosis is more cloudy as the school system uses up more than $200 million in federal COVID 19 relief money.

The good news came in the district’s revised $499 million general operating budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The budget, called the “General Fund” budget, covers about 70% of all spending in the school system. It pays for day-to-day school operations and any unforeseen expenses.

While spending increased 2% over what was predicted when the budget was adopted last summer, revenues have increased by nearly 4%. That added revenue, plus additional revenue from the previous fiscal year, has nearly doubled the district’s reserves from $28.6 to $52.6 million.

The additional reserves put the school system in stronger shape as it settles on spending plans for next year. A draft of the proposed 2022-23 budget is scheduled to be released on May 13.

The additional revenue this year came almost completely from a windfall in sales tax collections, which increased by 18% over expectations. Property taxes collection were flat in part because the school system rolled back millages in 2021, which reduced the tax rate the school system would otherwise have had in place. The board recently voted to roll forward millages for 2022, which should increase property tax revenue when tax bills are paid in early 2023.

This year’s budget, however, is partially propped up by federal COVID funding.

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Sandra Bethley, director of federal programs, gave a big-picture presentation on how that federal spending is progressing. She said the school system has spent almost $100 million of about $223 million of federal funding allocated from the federal government.

Board members Dawn Collins and Tramelle Howard on Thursday pressed Superintendent Sito Narcisse for more information on what happens when the federal money starts expiring.

“This is something I’ve been asking from the beginning,” Howard said.

“I don’t want to see that we’ve wasted a whole lot of money and didn’t spend money as we should,” he added.

The presentation comes on the heels of a new online database created by the nonprofit Baton Rouge Alliance for Students that went live last that allows Baton Rouge residents to track federal COVID spending in EBR schools.

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The overall increase in spending was partly due to a statewide school employee pay raise that was added to the district budget after it was approved. Also driving up spending is an increase in Central Office and other district administrative decisions that Superintendent Narcisse has instituted, which he has justified as a way to provide schools more support. Spending in “general administration” has increased from $10.9 million from prior to Narcisse’s arrival to $13.3 million, an increase of 22%.

Overall spending on charter schools decreased compared with original estimates. Spending was estimated at $125.8 million, but is expected to come at $117.7 million, a 6.4% decrease.

To keep better track of its finances, the School Board on Thursday voted unanimously to give preliminary approval to spend as much as $2.2 million to replace its antiquated financial software with a new software called Harris CitySuite, which is being recommended from a list of five vendors by an in-house committee. It’s offered by the same company that provides the district’s current financial software. A final vote is scheduled at the board’s May 19 meeting.

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Board member Mike Gaudet said that he oversaw a similar but bigger financial conversion when he was an executive with Albemarle. He said it will likely take a minimum of two years to conclude and said it will be far-reaching.

“I want you to understand this is not software, this is going on remapping every process that we do,” Gaudet said.

In other action, the board voted 5-3 along racial lines to adopt a new set of election maps necessitated by the 2020 U.S. Census. The vote ratified the board’s very similar April 7 vote selecting Public Plan 22, created by board member Mark Bellue, in the process setting aside 18 other proposed maps.

The only variance in Thursday’s vote compared with the April 7 vote is the absence on Thursday of board member Dadrius Lanus; Lanus, who is Black, voted against Plan 22.

Opponents of the maps say they plan to sue the School Board to stop the map from going into effect with this fall’s School Board elections.

Currently, the board has five White and four Black members. Plan 22 is likely to preserve that racial balance; it could possibly shift the board to a six White, three Black balance.

The adopted map is different depending on the way you view it. It retains four majority-Black districts when you look at all residents as well as registered voters. But it has only three majority-Black districts when you look at voting-age population.