Q&A with Superintendent Mitch Downey on May 4th proposals

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Superintendent Mitch Downey addresses the crowd at a Bossier Parish School Board meeting. (Courtesy of Bossier Schools)

By Stacey Tinsley, stinsley@bossierpress.com

Bossier Parish voters will have to decide whether to approve two very highly scrutinized property tax proposals this weekend.

Two property tax millages will be voted on Saturday, May 4. One will fund a pay raise for teachers and support staff while the other will go towards creating a funding source for technology throughout the parish.

Amidst groups in the community campaigning for and against the millages, the Press-Tribune interviewed Bossier Schools Superintendent Mitch Downey about some questions regarding the millage vote.

Q: Can you expand on why a property tax is the only real option to fund teacher raises and the technology upgrades?

A: The sales tax has reached the state cap in the towns of Benton, Haughton and Plain Dealing, so we would only be able to impose a sales tax in the City of Bossier, which would not generate enough funds. Also, our budget is stretched to the limit due to the exorbitant increase of unfunded mandates, the most costly ones being increased employer contributions for state retirement benefits as well as health insurance premiums. That accounts for more than $30 million a year. Property tax collections have also been down the last couple of years and the state has not increased MFP funding since 2014, yet costs have increased to educate students. That leaves us no other option other than to ask voters to decide which direction they want Bossier Schools to take. We hope their decision will be to invest in our children’s education and the future of Bossier Parish as a whole.

Q: What do you want to say to the taxpayers of Bossier Parish about the importance of approving these millages?

A: This school year, we were faced with the largest teacher turnover to date: 13 percent. We started the first day of school with more than 30 openings and had to fill many of those positions with non-certified teachers. The people of Bossier Parish expect the best and we want to put the most highly qualified teacher in our classrooms. But it is growing increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the best when you pay the least. Beginning teacher pay in Bossier pales in comparison to our surrounding districts — Caddo, Desoto, Red River and Webster. Couple that with a dramatic decrease in the number of people going into education and we are losing our competitive edge. We have been recruiting at colleges the last few months and we are seeing that Bossier is no longer beginning teachers’ first choice. If we don’t do something now, you will begin seeing the effects in our classrooms and district-wide.

Q: Is there any other budgetary options that can be sought to fund teacher pay raises or technology improvements?

A: The Board has been diligent in trying to trim where it can and use those savings to give employees one-time pay supplements when possible. But it is not sustainable and our teachers need something they can count on. The same with technology. Our infrastructure dates back to 1997 before we had a single Google Chromebook. Today, there are more than 23,000, which teachers and schools paid for through a patchwork of fundraising and grants because the district could not afford to buy them. The state also mandates online testing and we are severely lacking as a district. In fact, we are the only district in Louisiana that does not currently meet FCC standards for bandwidth. Our community is fast becoming a cyber hub and in order to create a pipeline for our students to enter the workforce prepared, we must have a dedicated revenue source to update technology infrastructure. 

Q: Are you concerned that even if the millage passes, surrounding parishes will seek similar measures to boost pay, and it creates a sort of teacher pay arms race?

A: Although we don’t have a crystal ball, it is certainly possible our surrounding districts will seek ways to boost teacher pay. A lot also depends on property tax collection and what happens at the state level. Will the legislature boost the MFP formula and bring it more in line with the increased costs associated with educating students? We feel Bossier Schools offer employees a safe working environment, a certain quality of life and community support, but in the end, they have to be able to make a living. 

Q: Has Bossier Schools gauged the business community to see if it will support increased taxes on their bottom line? If so, what has the response been?

A: It is no secret some members of the business community are opposed to the propositions, but we have also heard from many big and small businesses that recognize the economic growth of a community is contingent upon education, and they support us. They realize economic growth is based on the long-term and not short-term investment. The top two reasons young families are moving to Bossier Parish are good schools and low crime and those parallel each other. When you have a top notch K-12 school system that graduates highly skilled young people, that attracts business here. And when you have more job opportunities, that helps drive down crime and creates a quality of life you cannot put a price tag on. We cannot afford not to invest in our children and their education.