Virus has School Board facing substantial financial deficit

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Will next year be virtual?

By Carolyn Roy, carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

Natchitoches Wood

While COVID-19 is having a negative financial impact on the Natchitoches Parish School Board, other factors are also playing into the projected $400,000 budget shortfall the board will face when its fiscal year ends May 31. School board members found out at the meeting May 7 that a drop in enrollment of 68 students will result in a loss of $300,000 in MFP funding from the State.

Adding to the shortfall are the unexpected hiring of Supt. Grant Eloi while keeping former Supt. Dale Skinner as a consultant, drug testing, travel policy changes, orchestra and band funding, cameras on buses, camera repairs and other similar expenses. But that’s not all the bad financial news. COVID-19 is expected to greatly affect sales tax revenue. Director of Business Affairs Richard Foshee said he and Eloi estimated what the drop in sales tax collections for the remainder of the year will look like. A 20 percent drop in sales tax will result in $2.2 million less; a 40 percent drop will result in $4.4 million less; and a 60 percent drop will result in $6.7 million less, what Foshee termed the worst case scenario.

In addition to the impact on the general fund, the drop in sales tax collections will affect the two tax checks distributed to school board employees. Those two checks result from two 1-cent taxes passed by voters for distribution to employees. They are distributed in July and December. The checks could each be $400-$500 less than checks in past years.

Added to that is that the Natchitoches Tax Commission mistakenly collected an additional $260,000 in employee sales tax that has already been disbursed to the school board. The tax commission has notified the school board of the mistake and wants the overpayment refunded by November. There was a lengthy discussion among board members including if the repayment could possibly be made later than November.

Board member Emile Metoyer asked if the repayment could be deducted from two checks instead of just the July check. Board president Billy Benefield said the board could further discuss the matter at the June meeting. When the schools closed March 13, the board sought to pay as many employees as possible, including hourly contract employees, thinking that school would reopen. “We attempted to hold everyone in place,” Benefield said.

Since school did not reopen, those employees were being paid even though they did not work. Eloi recommended that they not be paid after April 30 because they can draw unemployment with a federal enhancement of $600. Eloi said it was one of the few times employees would benefit after being let go. “We are giving them money for no services,” Eoi said, “and its beneficial for them to get unemployment.”

Those employees included mainly tutors and a few food service workers who are not paid for weather days under normal conditions. Eloi checked with other school systems that are not paying similar employees. There was also a question of the legality of paying employees for hours not worked. There has been no calculation of how much the savings will be. The board supported Eloi in what he termed, “being the best financial steward of taxpayers money” when it voted to not pay 22 hourly employees after April 30. Those employees will be notified of the board’s decision and will receive their last checks in May. The only board member to argue against stopping the payments was Tan’keia Palmer who abstained from voting.

In his report, Eloi said the school board observed Teacher Appreciation week by thanking its employees through social media and signs. Employees served 52,770 meals and distributed 7,336 learning packets as of May 7.Having taken over in early March, Eloi said he felt like he had been on the job for years. “It’s been a great three weeks.”

The La. Dept. of Education is considering plans for school next year that could include a traditional setting, a hybrid of traditional and virtual and total virtual. Eloi believes there will be a need for summer learning opportunities (summer school) since school ended two and one half months early. Should the system go to complete virtual learning, there will be a need for one-on-one computers and possibly subsidized internet service. He will have the plan at the end of May or beginning of June. The last day of school is May 21, the last cooking day will be May 18 and the last feeding day will be May 19. Food service employees will have two days to clean and shut down the cafeterias.

There will be more research into whether to rent the schools during the summer and how to clean them. Metoyer said it will cost 10-15 cents per square foot to commercially clean the buildings plus more for the bathrooms.