Aguillard: Spring tax vote likely for schools

(Photo: Ken Stickney, The Daily Advertiser)

The Lafayette Parish School System will likely seek taxpayer approval for a property tax next spring, an effort to close the gap on more than a billion dollars in system wide facility needs.

Superintendent Don Aguillard said the board appears inclined to address building needs in a system that has some 471 temporary buildings, some so old that they were used when Aguillard began teaching four decades ago.

“Lafayette Parish should be embarrassed by the quality of our facilities,” the superintendent told The Daily Advertiser’s editorial board Wednesday. “Where in any definition of ‘temporary’ does it say buildings that are 45 years old?”

Lafayette collects 33.56 mills in property taxes, well behind similar-sized systems like Caddo, 75.66 mills; St. Tammany, 68.18; and Ascension, 61.59; but ahead of Calcasieu, 18.04. There are about 31,000 public schoolchildren in Lafayette.

Aguillard said that 20 percent of the parish’s schoolchildren are taught in temporary buildings — in some, teacher lectures are drowned out when rainfall hits the roof — and some teachers spend their entire careers teaching in temporary buildings.

Here’s how dire the situation is, in some places:

At Milton Elementary School, there are more children housed in temporary structures than in the permanent ones. There is no space for additional temporary classrooms.

With 2,500 students, Lafayette High cannot accommodate additional students. Two older temporary buildings are being moved to the site to be placed on old tennis courts. The school, built in 1953, should be replaced, but the replacement cost is about $125 million.

The system has virtually no air-conditioning in its gymnasiums, not all walkways are covered from the rain and in many places, sidewalks have crumbled or disintegrated.

Aguillard also said the system must meet technology needs that have been long overlooked. He said one study indicated that the system has under spent on technology by an average of about $6 million a year for the past five years. The aging schools need the capacity to accommodate new technology and become Internet capable. In addition, he said, “We must put devices into the hands of students.”

He said that school system personnel and board members are weighing how to present a list of specific infrastructure needs to a voting public that often rejects tax requests. The system had debt millage funding from 1928-2008, but not since. The preferred date for such an election would be in April 2016.

He also said that any efforts to bolster parish school facilities must include funding to maintain the buildings, which was not done the last time the system passed a tax.

A facilities study in 2011 suggested the system needed some $1.1 billion in improvements or renovations. The system is updating that study now.

“An A-rated school system would not have the facilities we have,” said Aguillard, who also said the hallmarks of his tenure as superintendent, in addition to improving facilities and technology, would include raising the system to an “A” rating. There are nine A systems in the state; Lafayette ranks slightly below the middle of the 30 B systems in Louisiana.

Moving from a B to A rating will take incremental progress, he said, perhaps three or four points a year to get to the minimum score of 100 that would push LPSS up a letter grade. That’s doable, Aguillard said, if the academic leadership is focused on boosting its efforts for at-risk children, keeping students in school and providing academic opportunity for ambitious students.

Lafayette schools graduate about 69 percent of the ninth-graders who enter the high schools, which Aguillard said is “shocking” for its failures. He said “way too many students” struggle to move past the ninth grade; that necessitates new academic programs for math and literacy and demands additional efforts to keep students on track for graduation.

The system is not short on good opportunities like those offered in the Early College Academy, in the fine arts program at Lafayette High and at the David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy, he said. But citizens, the real owners of this school system, must provide the means to improve or maintain the facilities and to fund its academic success.

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