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Tax talks top 2019 in primary education

Tuesday, January 7, 2020
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Leader photo by CALEB DANIEL
            Dubach School students, faculty and friends took to the Railroad Park stage in mid-Ocotober of last year to form a human “Circle of Friends” around their colorful bulldog statue design of the same name as it was revealed for the first time before being installed at the Ruston Sports Complex.

School news in 2019 was sandwiched on either side by talks of new taxes for the Lincoln Parish School Board.

A multi-million dollar package of public school improvements stalled in early 2019 after the school board decided not to vote on sending two property tax proposals to voters.

The board had been scheduled in January to vote on setting a referendum for May 4, but the item was pulled due to lack of support.

Project SECURE — Safety Enhanced Campuses United for a more Robust Education — sought to upgrade school security, provide a standalone Enhanced School Calendar facility, add a sixth-grade building to Ruston Junior High, expand pre-school opportunities and give teachers and school personnel a small raise.

Board members on both sides of the issue said timing killed the tax plan.

On Nov. 29, 2018, Ruston’s Board of Aldermen approved a 1.75% sales tax hike on local hotel stays and meals purchased at local restaurants. The city administration’s original plan had been to settle the Ruston-only sales tax issue early in November, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, the vote came only five days prior to the official unveiling of the proposed school taxes.

School board calls 2020 sales tax referendum

After the property tax proposal went under, the school board came back in the fall with a new plan: a half-cent sales tax for teacher pay raises and school security improvements.

The board voted unanimously in October to send the proposed sales tax, projected to produce some $4.6 million annually, to the May 9, 2020 ballot.

If approved by voters, $2.9 million of that annual pot would fund a $3,000/year raise for teachers and a $1,500/ year raise for support staff.

A yearly $600,000 would be used to hire enough additional School Resource Officers to put a full-time law enforcement presence on every public school campus at all times, plus security upgrade projects at every campus.

Another half million would go toward supporting the district’s rising costs for employee health insurance.

A more malleable $600,000 pot would address general budget issues, such as an expected decrease in the state of Louisiana’s funding allotment.

The school board currently has four half-cent sales taxes on the books. This fifth tax would increase the school system’s dedicated portion of sales tax to 2.5%.

RHS forced to alter logo

This year, Rutgers University took legal action against the Ruston High school block letter “R” logo, filing a cease and desist order saying that it owns the rights to the symbolic letter.

Ruston High, which was first contacted by Rutgers in February, signed a non-disclosure agreement with Rutgers and agreed to phase out the RHS “R” branding over the next 10 years.

In August, the new logo was unveiled.

It looks similar to the old one, with the exception that the four serifs on the bottom part of the “R” have been cut to one. In typography, a serif is a small line or stroke regularly attached to the end of a larger stroke in a letter or symbol within a particular font or family of fonts.

The new logo was not used in this fall’s football season since it was only approved right beforehand.

Secondary Education Supervisor Ricky Durrett said the new logo will be gradually phased in as the RHS athletics programs order new items.

STEM Center opens doors

Fourteen months after awarding the project bid, the school district saw its new STEM Center building come to life in August.

Located on Woodward Ave. next to Ruston Junior High

School, the $2.7 million, 10,000-square-foot Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Center began providing all students pre-K through 12th grade in all Lincoln Parish Schools with a variety of hands-on experiences starting in late September.

This multipurpose building features physical and life sciences, robotics and engineering classrooms, a makers labequippedwitheverything from 3D printers to sewing machines, an outdoor area for special projects, a conference room for faculty and students and several break-out rooms and work stations.

Dubach School wins Bonus Bulldog design

Led by art teacher Lauren Dixon, 162 Dubach School students, faculty and staff came together to make the “Circle of Friends” design for the Ruston Cultural District’s “Bonus Bulldog” design competition as part of its series of “Bulldog Project” statues.

The pattern of circles and dots garnered over 3,500 votes to triumph over four other handpicked designs in a month-long voting period in April.

The 3-foot-tall fiberglass statue currently traveled to Dubach School, where 207 Dubach School students, teachers, family and friends came to Dixon’s art room to contribute a circle or a few dots of paint to the bright bulldog.

Then in October, the Ruston and Dubach communities came together at Railroad Park to celebrate the unveiling of the completed bulldog, forming a human circle of friends around their creation as it was revealed on stage.

“Circle of Friends” was soon after relocated to its permanent home at the Ruston Sports Complex, a site that was also voted on by the public.

Another good year of school performance

Assessment data from the Louisiana Department of Education indicated positive trends for Lincoln Parish throughout the year, culminating with the district and school performance scores’ release in November.

The spring 2019 LEAP assessment scores arrived in July, indicating a 3% increase from the previous year in Lincoln Parish students grades 3-8 scoring “Mastery” or better in English language arts, mathematics and social studies combined.

This improvement helped the district compare favorably to the surrounding parishes, only slightly trailing Ouachita Parish and outpacing all other neighboring districts.

Another wave of data released in September, labeling Lincoln Parish as one of the state’s “Outstanding School Systems.”

Student progress reports based on the LEAP scores ranked the parish among the highest systems in the state in terms of percentage of students who achieved “top growth” toward Mastery levels.

Then in November, the district performance scores crowned Lincoln Parish as the No. 1 school system in north Louisiana once again.

Lincoln Prep earns charter extension

Lincoln Preparatory School was awarded a one-year extension of its charter in December and will be up for renewal of a new contract term after the current school year.

BESE granted the Grambling-based charter school its initial extension based on its latest school performance score exceeding the contract standard.

Lincoln Prep earned a “C” grade in this year’s school performance data.

All a Louisiana charter school needs to earn its first extension is a “D” grade or higher.

After that, the school is assessed again during its fifth year, and a “C” grade or higher will earn a new charter contract.

Plummeting sales tax affects budget

A downward spiral in sales tax collections in the 2018-19 fiscal year exacerbated the school board’s tenuous financial situation.

A revenue report in February showed that collections dropped 13% in the first seven months of the fiscal year that began July 1, 2018. About a quarter of the school system’s general revenues each year come from sales taxes.

By May, each of the board’s five budget funds fueled by sales taxes had collected only about three quarters of what was projected for that point in the year.

Then in August, the district announced that in order to help balance the budget, it had reduced personnel by almost 50 positions across the parish through attrition.

Four administrative and13teachingpositions were absorbed. However, most of the remaining cuts to paraprofessional positions were later restored before the school year began.

Later that month, the board approved its final revised 2018-19 budget, which reflected a $5.3 million deficit. The original budget only anticipated a $2.1 million shortfall.

The additional deficit was thanks primarily to falling sales tax revenues and state funding. All in all, the school board’s four sales taxes brought in over $1.8 million less than the original budget had projected.

In September, the board approved its 2019-20 projected budget, including an expected $1.5 million deficit.

Finally, in December, tax revenues were reported to be trending back upward in the new fiscal year.