Cheatham: Supporting propositions an investment in Bossier’s future

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Few people would argue that teachers do not deserve a pay raise. The question is how to remedy what is fast becoming a crisis in our children’s classrooms, including here in Bossier Parish where good schools are one of the top reasons why young families are moving here.

Educators nationwide are earning less today than 18 years ago when adjusted for inflation.

Adding to the sting, Louisiana teacher salaries rank 41st in the nation and Bossier Schools pays beginning educators thousands less than Caddo, Desoto, Red River and Webster parishes. The salary gap has only continued to widen over time, the effect being a gradual uptick in teacher turnover, which reached a pinnacle of 13-percent in Bossier this school year. In many instances, we have had to turn to non-certified teachers to staff our classrooms.

Simply put, though we are internationally accredited and rank in the top 10 for ACT and LEAP scores, Bossier Parish is losing its competitive edge to recruit and retain the caliber of teachers our residents expect and deserve for their children. When you pay the least, it is difficult to expect the best.

How can that be when Bossier Schools is the fastest growing district in Louisiana?

Since 2010 the state has passed onto school districts mandated employer retirement contributions and increased health care costs, forcing Bossier Parish to absorb $31 million in additional costs annually. Yes, student enrollment has grown, which brings in additional monies. Property tax collections, however, have decreased and Louisiana’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) base amount per student has remained flat since 2014. Costs have not.

Factor into the equation 89% of the budget goes to salaries and benefits, leaving just 11% of remaining funds to operate and maintain the entire school system. Tapping into the Bossier Educational Excellence Fund (BEEF) is off limits, because it is constitutionally protected and structured so only the interest derived from casino revenue can be used for classroom enhancements. Salaries and capital improvements are prohibited. Seeking a parishwide sales tax hike is also not possible because the towns of Benton, Haughton and Plain Dealing have already reached the state cap.

Bottom line, funding a pay raise in time to get Bossier back in the batter’s box by August when the new school year begins is simply not feasible with the dollars remaining in the general fund. This is why the Bossier Parish School Board is asking voters to consider a 22.94 mill salary proposition to fairly compensate employees with a living wage.

Though most recent discussions have centered around the salary proposition, little focus has been placed on Proposition 2, which seeks 3.22 mills to provide for another critical need; a dedicated revenue source for technology infrastructure.

While it is hard to believe, Bossier Schools is the only district in Louisiana not meeting FCC standards for bandwidth and broadband capacity. Proposition 2 will address the aging infrastructure installed 22 years ago when there were few devices and no state mandated online testing, yet currently powering technology throughout the district.

It only takes a short drive down Highway 80 to see how the landscape has changed in a relatively short period of time. Much of the growth in Bossier Parish is driven by the expansion of the cyber and knowledge-based industry. For Bossier Schools to create a workforce pipeline and prepare students for those highly skilled jobs, it is imperative we modernize infrastructure to maintain current needs and implement new technologies expected for 21st century learning.

While this gives a brief overview of needs, it is also important to consider Bossier Schools’ economic impact. Oftentimes, the district is seen solely by some as an expense because it costs to support a public school system our size. But as the second largest employer in the parish, Bossier Schools and its employees contribute a tremendous amount of buying power in the community. The School Board also adopted a local preference policy several years ago, placing priority on doing business with local businesses.

According to the Associated General Contractors, Bossier Schools has been the chief provider of construction work in northwest Louisiana for the last several years, both in dollars and numbers of construction and construction-related jobs. Yes, the district collects taxes but the Bossier Parish School system invests those dollars right back into our community, which then multiply several-fold.

As President of the Bossier Parish School Board, I can assure you being good stewards of tax dollars is our top priority and the district has shown exceptional fiscal responsibility. For 26 consecutive years, the Finance Department has received the highest form of recognition in governmental accounting and financial reporting. By maintaining an imposed 12% reserve, our bond rating is the highest of any school district in Louisiana.That will reap taxpayers a savings of more than $25 million in interest over the life of the district’s bonds.    

We can no longer afford to keep kicking the can down the road. Education is a long-term investment with high yields that creates economic growth and prosperity. It is an investment  Bossier Schools is asking citizens to make that directly impacts our most precious resources; our children, grandchildren and those to come. It is a matter of priorities.

Shane Cheatham is president of the Bossier Parish School Board