Can a new school tax pass in Lafayette?

Photo Credit: KLFY

LAFAYETTE, La. (The Daily Advertiser) – The Lafayette Parish School System’s push for a new sales tax will kick into high gear in the next month.

District officials and school board members will host several forums and meetings across the parish. There will be discussions with leaders of parent-teacher organizations, all ahead of the April 29 vote.

Superintendent Donald Aguillard said the forums so far have drawn small crowds. However, most feedback on the proposal has been positive, he said.

“Thus far, the forums that we have had lead us to believe people get it. They understand the need,” Aguillard said. “The feeling is that people are leaving thinking that this is a reasonable tax to consider.”

If approved, the 10-year, half-cent sales tax would generate about $194 million. The money would go toward the construction of permanent structures to replace 248 temporary buildings at 12 schools.

Structure, time limit may help chances

The public outreach will be critical if the tax is to pass, said Pearson Cross, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“It’s huge. You can’t spread this message wide enough or far enough,” said Cross, who also is an associate professor of political science. “Somebody should be out there talking about this on a daily basis.”

Cross said such tax proposals historically face “an uphill battle” in Louisiana. Many citizens are skeptical of any new taxes, and tend to distrust government and public bodies in general, he said.

However, Cross thinks the LPSS proposal has a “fair” chance of passage.

“It has two things in its favor. It’s a sales tax, which a lot of people think is a fairer tax,” he said. “Also, it’s time-limited. It’s only in effect for 10 years. Those taxes have had more success lately than property taxes or other kinds of taxes. And there’s also been a pretty good case made that the schools are falling down in the parish.”

Cross said a tax’s chances can improve if local institutions and leaders are on board. That’s been the case so far with the LPSS proposal. The Broussard and Duson city councils have expressed formal support. Last week, the 16-member Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council announced its wholehearted support as well.

Whether that translates into broader public support or more “yes” votes is not always clear, Cross said.

“I think for those voters who are amenable to it or are paying attention, they might say, ‘hey, if these groups and businesses are for it, then maybe it’s a good idea,’” Cross said. “But a lot of people are low-information voters and for them, it’s kind of a gut thing.”

Voters may balance concerns with needs

Kathleen Espinoza, a co-founder of Power of Public Education Lafayette, said she thinks many PPEL members and other voters will balance facility and financial concerns when deciding how to vote.

Espinoza said PPEL members believe the district needs to improve its facilities, and needs more revenue to do so. They also appreciate the chance to vote on the issue.

However, Espinoza said she’s heard concerns about a sales tax – that Louisiana already has a high sales tax rate, and property taxes provide a more stable revenue stream.

“I don’t know how that is going to play out in April,” she said. “I wish I had a crystal ball. I’m concerned that a lot of people who would normally support a property tax for the school system might be more hesitant to vote in favor of a sales tax. I do think that an aggressive campaign to highlight the sense of urgency will probably help.”

Broussard City Councilman Johnnie Foco said he knows people have concerns about current tax rates and perceptions about how the school board has spent money in the past. That has Foco, a supporter of the tax, somewhat wary of its chances.

Foco said he hopes voters will look at how the district has allocated funds in recent years, like the construction of Southside High, plans for a new elementary school in Broussard, new wings at schools like Green T. Lindon Elementary and Youngsville Middle and a new cafetorium at L.J. Alleman Middle. Those funds have been exhausted, though, and officials say they cannot do more large-scale construction without new tax dollars.

“I’m a pretty conservative person when it comes to money, but the school board has done what they said they were going to do,” he said. “They aren’t going to use this money for the general fund or for salaries. It’s strictly for classrooms. We have to pay our fair share when it comes to these schools.”

MORE INFO:

For more information on the tax proposal, visit lpssonline.com to review various documents about it, and see a schedule of upcoming forums.

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