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Normally compliant voters send Bossier schools message

It was a tale of several northwest Louisiana local governing authorities this weekend concerning funding propositions for local governments, with very different fates. Of around 140 ballot propositions across the state for a dizzying variety of jurisdictions and purposes, only nine failed to pass. Interestingly, five of them were in this part of the state.

Some authorities around here won, and big. Multiple propositions renewing nearly half of the projected revenues for the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office breezed by the voters by margins that make Russia look like a healthy democracy by comparison.

This is a testament to the leadership of Sheriff Steve Prator, whose tenure now of over a dozen years has featured putting a brake on spiraling costs while expanding services. He even did something seldom seen around these parts by governing authorities with property tax renewals – rather than renew them at their previous authorized millages, he put up to the voters the millages at which they had been rolled back.
The same success story goes for Caddo Parish, with a set of renewals for operating expenses. The parish has benefitted greatly from the shale gas boom, but those revenues largely have been one-time in nature and wisely socked away. In recent years, it even deferred asking for authority to collect revenues for bonds, paying for capital projects out of its burgeoning bank accounts.

Yet the same fiscal bonanza, on steroids, may have doomed propositions in De Soto Parish. With such huge sums coming into that parish with the attendant economic activity that lifts other revenue sources, voters may have felt a case of government overreach to renew a general purpose tax in Mansfield, and renewing one dedicated to animal control for the parish. In Sabine Parish, a new but small tax for water provision around South Toledo Bend narrowly lost.

Then there were the property tax propositions put up by the Bossier Parish School District. One essentially acted a like a renewal – taking an existing 13.55 mill measure and reinvigorating it by allowing as much as $210 million worth of bonds with maturities as lengthy as 20 years to be financed from it. This one went into effect in 2005 with a general overall increase in property tax rates by the district and has stayed the same even as operating millages were rolled back in 2008 to decrease overall mills paid to schools to 52.26.

One could argue the necessity of continuing at this rate while allowing it to take on new commitments because it would not have to go higher and because the district has engaged in a substantial building program. But also the facts are the district because of rollbacks had excess capacity to let this expire away with its bonds already sold, or a smaller amount could have been asked for, perhaps going back to the 3.20 level of 2004. The increase requested creates excess capacity, and that in the hands of elected officials provides the tools in the devil’s workshop.

As in 2005, the same logic brought about to justify such an increase was growth of the parish’s school population and thereby the need for more and newer facilities. Since then, through 2010 the student population has increased about 2,000 or just over 10 percent, but district expenditures per pupil have shot up nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, in the 2007-11 period alone, the property tax revenue for the district, thanks to healthy real estate value increases, went a third higher to about $43 million a year.

Despite this relative affluence, in the past couple of years, the district has taken to running a deficit. As a result, the district’s finances have accelerated into a deteriorating position; in 2010-11, over $17 million being eaten away from its total reserves, or over 20 percent of the balance. While some of the extra costs have come from the state passing along, because of a standstill Minimum Foundation Program formula, in essence unfunded mandates, that represents only a fraction of those costs.

The remainder has simply gone to growing the school district beyond the increase in students and tax revenues with little evidence this trend has increased student achievement beyond the expenditure growth rates that would have conformed to either of these levels. And avoided assiduously by the district’s flacks in promoting this proposition was jurisdictions with such a healthy increase in tax revenues had no business asking for this much more above and beyond that. Expenditures rising because of “growth” should get matched by the upwards push in real estate values caused by that; there’s no need to overshoot that. In short, existing unused millages from other taxes should have been more than enough to fulfill at least part of the ambitious plans made by a district which has gotten into the habit of living beyond its means.

This proposition squeaked through the generally somnambulant Bossier voting public, with its more-transient, less-long-standing residency characteristics. But tax increases did not, which comprised the other two propositions on the ballot, one for teacher salaries, the other for technological enhancements. Much anguishing issued forth from district flacks, about how other surrounding parishes offered higher average salaries than Bossier, and how technology could put students on the cutting edge of preparation.

But the fact remains, some of this could have been accomplished through existing unused millages instead of asking taxpayers to fork over an additional (combined) estimated $11 million a year. Or perhaps, given the deficit spending, perhaps the School Board if it didn’t want to cut back on spending should have had the guts to get rates to roll forward and at least address that matter before asking for new commitments.

And this bodes poorly for its future. By the end of next year, the district will have to come up with two renewals, and another by the end of 2015, for other operating revenues. The results of this election show a skeptical Bossier public that may be willing to punish a profligate Bossier Parish School Board if it doesn’t soon get to right-sizing its district.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"This proposition squeaked through the generally somnambulant Bossier voting public"

We know you can use big words but how about writing an article we can read without having our dictionary beside us?