East Feliciana superintendent talks effects of residents voting no to tax

EAST FELICIANA PARISH, LA (WAFB) - Another blow for an already struggling school district, voters in East Feliciana Parish turned down a new tax to help operate the district's seven schools. The new tax would have generated $4 million a year for the schools. Without that money, the superintendent says some the materials needed to address changes for next year, like teacher pay raises, are near impossible.

There were some new changes made by Superintendent Henderson Lewis at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. Lewis says he made cuts to the central office to get a handle on the budget, but he also made stops into the district's schools and found many times teachers were behind a desk, teaching.

"You teach from your feet, not from your seat," Lewis said. He says often he shows up at campuses and has the school principal sit in on classroom instruction with him. He says he asks principals if they liked what the teacher is doing and if not, has them develop and implement ideas that will make a difference.

This is the Dr. Lewis' first year with the district. He says the changes he's made have been somewhat of a culture change. For example, he says during football season, many of the bus drivers would take off to go to high school playoff games.

"We were canceling school because we didn't have transportation," he said. But once he sent out a letter, it stopped.

Lewis hoped those changes would allow residents in East Feliciana to see things were moving in a different direction. He hoped residents would pass a new tax to give the system some much needed money, but that didn't happen and Lewis says educating will be a harder job next year.

That $4 million tax would have helped address changes in academics in the coming year. For example, he says material that may have been taught in tenth grade is now being pushed down to the ninth grade. Lewis says 30 states, including Louisiana, are changing over to the Common Core State Standards next year. But without money from the tax, Lewis says, new material will be hard to purchase.

"The current textbooks can't be used next year."

Dr. Lewis says even the Louisiana State Department of Education recognizes East Feliciana isn't ready for the transition. One reason is because technology is out of date.

"Every time it rains in our district, you can count on technology going out." Lewis says next year, students will be tested on computers, not paper and pencil. Updating that technology will be nearly impossible, says Lewis. "If we're administering a test and it's raining, what's going to happen for our students?"

Lewis keeps a binder in his office of projects that are needed at each of the districts seven schools. He says the book lists a total of $8 million in needed updates.

Then, there's the issue of teacher salaries. East Feliciana's teachers start at $36,664. In East Baton Rouge, the starting salary is $43,536. In Zachary it's $46,052.

"We cannot compete because we're talking about, in some instances, where districts are $10,000 more than we are." Lewis says that makes it hard to retain teachers and to recruit new ones.

Not only that, he says teachers with 25 years of experience who are thinking of retiring will have to live off 60 percent of their salary... a salary that is an average of $45,812, compare that to a teacher with the same amount of experience living off 60 percent of $61,092.

Lewis says teacher salaries are frozen for the current school year, and they will likely remain that way next school year. He says he'll have to tighten the budget even more, but he's determined to give the students what they deserve, as long as the system can afford it.

"If someone asked me if I'm discouraged, my answer is no," he says. "I don't feel defeated at all."

Lewis adds years ago, the school system moved from a five-day school week, to a four-day week, due to budget issues with rising fuel costs for transportation. He says money from this tax would have allowed them to go back to a five-day week, which he says is important because students need more classroom instruction time.

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