Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pastorek apologizes, and school boards have some 'splainin to do

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has apologized for his intemperate language regarding national board certification for teachers. In this article by Times-Picayune capitol bureau chief Robert Travis Scott, Pastorek says, "I regret that recent comments I made may have failed to communicate the high regard I hold for our nationally board certified teachers. I fully recognize and appreciate that these teachers are experienced and valued educators who go through a difficult and costly process to earn the NBCT designation."

Pastorek's original statement - that national certification may not make teachers more effective in the classroom - was a clumsy effort to give Governor Bobby Jindal cover for his plan to shift state budget obligations to local school boards. With the Pastorek sideshow out of the way, it's time to concentrate on that very real issue.

The stipends for national certification are unquestionably a state obligation. So is the other main budget shift proposed by the governor, the cost of transporting private and religious school students.

The governor's argument is that in a time of budget crisis, everyone needs to do what they can to help. His point is made in this article by Advocate reporter Will Sentell. Five school systems in the state have a combined total of $278 million in financial reserves, which the governor says should be tapped for costs the state can't afford.

According to the State Department of Education, the state's 70 school systems have a combined $1.1 billion in fund balances.

If that looks bad for the school boards, it's their own fault. The reserve funds exist, and boards have not been transparent in explaining why they were accumulated in the first place. But that does not mean all the money in those reserves is available to help shoulder state obligations.

Years ago, financial experts at the Department of Education were critical of local school boards because they did not have adequate reserve funds. They recommended that districts keep as much as 10% of their operating budget in reserve.

There are several potential uses for those funds that may explain why they shouldn't be used to offset state obligations. They may be saved for capital projects like new buildings. They may be held in anticipation of rising costs for insurance, retirement and other employee benefits. In systems which have a large number of schools that have been chartered or taken over by the state, there will be legacy costs for providing retiree benefits out of a shrunken pool of employees.

Those are legitimate reasons for telling the governor "no." But school boards have been reluctant to explain their reserve funds to the public. Unless they do, they can expect to be targeted. That has already begun. In a Baton Rouge Business Report online survey, 58% of respondents say that local school boards should "pick up the tab" for nationally certified teacher stipends. Only 24% say the state should continue to pay, and 10% say certified teachers shouldn't be paid a a stipend at all.

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