Keeping pace with growth: St. Mary emphasizing classroom results

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Moving St. Mary’s public schools to the state’s common core curriculum standards is the biggest challenge facing the district this year, according to public schools Superintendent Donald Aguillard.

Louisiana is among a consortium of states adapting to English language arts and mathematics standards.

“This is happening across the country,” he said. “Common Core curriculum is an attempt to compare students across the country so that we can compare the effectiveness of the public education system.”

Aguillard is among educators who welcome the initiative.

“Frankly, it has always been my opinion that we teach too many concepts and do not provide enough time for a deep understanding of the basics,” he said. “This move will allow us to change the nature of what we teach, and produce stronger students who have a deeper understanding of language arts and mathematics.”

Louisiana students will take high-stakes tests – LEAP and GEE – a final time this year. In 2014-15, public schools will implement Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) to students in grades 3 through 11.

“Of course, we will see new benchmarks; and there will likely be new thresholds for student proficiency,” Aguillard said.

As students return to class today, Aguillard expects enrollment to tally just over 9,000 pupils.

“We’ve seen a 1-percent decline (in population) over the past few years; except for last fall, where we stayed the same,” he said. “Maybe we’re about to start a trend up, as the oil service economy continues to trend up here.”

Enrollment, local sales taxes and state and federal funds all factor in to operating the St. Mary system. The lion’s share is provided through local taxes.

The state allocates approximately $6,000 per child to school districts for classroom education.

“Taxes here are up by $1.5 million,” Aguillard said. “Last year, I believe we collected $15 million in sales taxes.

“I can’t reiterate enough how important it is for our residents to shop here. We need those tax dollars, particularly since we are not quite receiving what we should from the state.”

Past adjustments to the Minimum Foundation Program funding have forced parish public school districts to closely monitor spending.

And shortly after the sequestration in Washington, D.C., the school district lost another 6 percent of its budget.

“[Operating the district] has become such a big struggle when you review the rising cost of gasoline, text books and employee retirement costs,” he said.

But Aguillard and the St. Mary Parish School Board have “a history of budgeting conservatively,” the superintendent said. A recent audit of the district found the school board has roughly $16 million in reserve funds.

“Building up reserves is a commendable thing,” Aguillard said. “As we see more and more challenges, we’re going to have to dip into our reserves in order to help us sustain the momentum that our parish has enjoyed the past several years.”

That’s not to say difficult cuts have been avoidable in the short term. Aguillard said the district has eliminated 22 positions, mostly through attrition. “We don’t cut people; we cut positions by filling vacancies due to retirement or resignations.”

This school year, 70 new teachers have joined the district.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that our classrooms still have a 20-to-1 teacher ratio,” Aguillard said.

The parish’s school district continues to be among St. Mary’s Top 10 employers with nearly 1,350 teachers and support staff.

The school district’s employees have a promising future. The school board has agreed to pay a $600 per employee bonus by December.

State lawmakers adjusted the MFP formula during the last fiscal session, earmarking a 2.75 increase for teachers. The remaining amount was left to each school board’s discretion to spend.

In St. Mary, the formula translated into an extra $1 million in the district’s coffers.

The school board agreed to fund across-the-board increases to all employees, Aguillard said.

With 658 teachers, St. Mary’s school board will spend just over $500,000. Providing the remaining staff a bonus will cost the district approximately $530,000, which will be paid from the board’s general fund.

“Our number-one priority here is to support the effectiveness of our classroom teachers,” Aguillard said. “Moving money to the classroom is our first priority.”

To help household budgets, Aguillard said the school board has again agreed to allocate $22.50 per student to offset the cost of supplies, fees and science materials.

“This annual disbursement defrays a portion of the typical back-to-school expense, while ensuring that all students have needed materials on the first day of school.”

Lunch prices for the 2013-14 year are increasing 10 cents, as mandated by the federal government.

Kindergarteners through fifth-graders pay $1.55 for lunch. Students in grades 6 through 12 pay $1.80. Breakfast prices remain 75 cents.

“I’m looking for a good, productive year,” he said. “I’m asking all parents to join with me.”

St. Mary Parish public school principals meet with Central Office administrators Thursday for their first day of in-staff school orientation. Classes begin today in St. Mary.