State Sen. J. Rogers Pope has never lived in Pointe Coupee Parish, but the challenges the public school system seem almost too familiar to him.
The first-term Republican senator from Denham Springs – who took office in January after three terms as a state representative –spent 38 years in the Livingston Parish school system, where he worked as a teacher and coach, and served as an assistant principal and principal on all three levels – elementary, middle and high school. He later worked in the school board’s central office and served 14 years as superintendent.
As one of the Louisiana legislature’s most ardent supporters of public education, it didn’t take him long to peg down the biggest obstacle the Pointe Coupee Parish School System faces.
The residents and businesses of Pointe Coupee Parish need to support additional tax revenue for the public school system if they want it to survive, Pope said.
“I don’t want to be too harsh on them, but from what I see and what I’ve heard, it hinges on the lack of revenue and people not wanting to pay more,” he said. “They have to go out, sell a product and sell it to the people, and if they don’t get more revenue, they won’t only lose a quantity of people, but also a quality of people.”
He made his comments hours before the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board was to decide in a special meeting after press time it would put a millage before voters on the May 9 ballot.
The millage would create additional revenue to fund teacher pay raises and curb an exodus of qualified educators to neighboring parishes. It would also funnel more money to transportation, the second largest expense for the parish school system.
The millage amount – and the decision of whether to hold the election – was on the agenda for the Feb. 12 meeting.
The lack of revenue from the parish plays a role in how much money the parish receives through the Minimum Foundation Program, which determines how much money the state funnels to public school systems.
The loss of 126 students in the 2017-18 school year cost the School Board $1.8 million in funding through the MFP. The loss of that funding played a significant role in $984,000 deficit the parish when the current fiscal year ends June 30.
The 16.5 mills Pointe Coupee collects ranks second lowest in the state, only behind St. Helena Parish.
“You look at the tax base in Pointe Coupee parish, and that has an effect on what the state does,” Pope said. “The MFP rewards parishes that help themselves.”
Pope grappled with funding issues in his school system, which is funded by a one-cent and two-cent sales tax.
He has seen both sides of the coin – the support and opposition to the school system.
“We’ve been there and done that, and I know what it takes to turn it around,” he said. “We had to get people to buy into it, and it took a long time, but oue parish has become very supportive of the school system.”
Additional tax revenue could help the Pointe Coupee Parish School System, but it will take an enormous effort for a proposal to pass muster with voters.
“I’m very concerned about the small window of time for them to make the sell,” he said. “Putting this tax on a May ballot may be premature, but you have to have a big sell.”
A potentially bigger challenge faces the school system, and it’s an obstacle that challenges every town in the United States.
It comes down to the word “tax.”
“You have to make a big sell, but this nation has become more and more anti-tax,” Pope said. “My theory: If you want a serve, you have to pay for it, but it has to be within reason, and you have to produce a good produce.
“You can’t have one without the other – it’s like the “chicken or the egg,” he said.
Pope considers the STEM Academy a major step in the right direction for the future of Pointe Coupee Parish.
The real direction ultimately depends on the residents of the parish, he said.
“Residents need to realize that a viable community comes only with a good public school system,” Pope said. “When you lose that viable school system, the community eventually dies and goes away”