Joe Murphy knows passing any tax in Livingston Parish is an uphill battle.
But he also knows something must be done to improve his school system’s low ranking in teacher and employee pay, which has led to constant turnover in recent years — and a steady drop in performance.
“Now is the time we need to address this,” said Murphy, superintendent of the state’s eighth-largest school district but its 38th-highest paid for teachers — a ranking that falls further for bus drivers, custodians, maintenance workers, and food service workers.
Murphy spoke on the dilemma the district currently faces during a recent interview with The News, less than two months before Livingston Parish voters will decide on a proposed sales tax that could have long-lasting effects for the local school system.
Set for the March 25 election, the parish-wide ballot item will ask voters if they support a one-cent sales tax that could only be used for public school employee salaries and benefits, according to the resolution.
If approved, the one-cent sales tax is expected to generate around $24 million annually, which would be enough to give all 3,700 Livingston Parish Public Schools employees at least a 10-percent raise, with a baseline per-year increase of $2,500.
The one-cent sales tax would be on the books for 20 years before going back to voters for a potential renewal. Grocery, prescription, and fuel sales in the parish would be exempt from the tax, according to officials.
The proposal came from a recommendation by the Livingston Parish Educational Facilities Improvement District (EFID) Board of Directors. The EFID board was activated in the fall to explore options to improve salaries for the district’s nearly 3,800 employees.
If approved, the sales tax would go on the books July 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year for the school system — meaning pay raises would go into effect for the 2023-24 school year.
District leaders are hoping the extra funding and higher salaries will entice school employees to stay in Livingston Parish, which has suffered from what Murphy has called an “out-migration” in recent years. That trend had been manageable until the COVID-19 pandemic, which “accelerated” the problem, Murphy said.
The exodus of school employees is starting to impact student performance, officials have said. This year, the Livingston Parish school system fell from its usual spot among the state’s ten-highest performing districts to No. 11 — a small yet noticeable dip that could continue if the district doesn’t address employee pay, Murphy said.
“I would hope people would see this not only as a school issue, but a community issue,” he said.
Since the start of 2023, school leaders have been trying to drum up support for the tax, saying the future of the district is at stake. A website dedicated to the proposal — www.livingston1cent.com — contains information on the district’s recent struggles recruiting and retaining qualified employees, its current pay ranking and ranking should the tax pass, and the tax’s potential impact on families.
The school system has also planned a series of public meetings to discuss the tax and field questions from the public. Meetings will be held at Denham Springs High (5:30 p.m. on Feb. 7), Live Oak High (7 p.m. Feb. 7), Albany High (5:30 p.m. Feb. 13), Springfield High (7 p.m. Feb. 13), and Walker High (6 p.m. Feb. 15).
Though there has been support for the tax, it is not without opponents. Those against it have argued that the parish is already heavily taxed and have said the school system should look within its existing budget before asking the citizens for more money.
But the tax proposal appears to have the support of school employees: In an internal survey conducted in January, 76 percent of the 1,760 total respondents said they intend on voting “yes” in March. In that same survey, 90 percent said they are underpaid compared to nearby districts.
When asked why the district decided now was the time to go before voters for such a proposal, Murphy said the district “is in a crisis” and can no longer wait to address the pay disparity issue.
He also recalled a recent trip around the district to present this year’s system-wide Teacher of the Year winners. All three, he said, were educated in Livingston Parish schools before returning to teach.
“All three of them were children in our schools, grew up in our schools, went through our schools, and they decided they would dedicate their lives and career right here in Livingston Parish,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing this right now: We want our people to stay, we want our people to be happy, and we want our people to be successful.”
‘We’re at a crossroads’
In previous years, Livingston Parish school leaders would interview as many as 150 prospective teachers at job fairs, hoping to fill 10 open positions.
Now, they say they’d be lucky to have 30 people apply — a troubling drop-off that officials fear isn’t slowing down.
In recent years, Livingston Parish has been forced to fill dozens — and now hundreds — of open teacher positions as the district’s experienced educators leave for higher-paying gigs in neighboring parishes.
The average salaries for Livingston Parish’s first-year ($47,117) and 25-year ($58,256) teachers rank sixth and fifth, respectively, among six local districts. The other five districts include Ascension Parish, Central Community Schools, East Baton Rouge Parish, Tangipahoa Parish, and Zachary Community Schools.
Those rankings would jump to first and second, respectively, should the tax pass, according to figures provided by the school system. Officials hope the increased salaries will help the district recruit and retain qualified teachers, which has grown more and more difficult in recent years.
For the 2022-23 year, the district hired 220 new teachers — an amount Murphy said the district had “never” before reached in a single year. That is up from 190 new teacher hires last school year and 160 the year before.
Training new teachers requires support from the central office as well as the school, meaning the more teachers that are hired, the more training that is required. Officials said improving salaries would help retain teachers, which in turn would reduce the amount of training for new teachers.
Additionally, there are currently 116 teachers — roughly 7 percent of the district’s 1,800 teachers — who aren’t fully certified, Murphy said.
“There was a time when we’d go to job fairs and have 10 openings and 400 applicants,” Murphy said. “But education across the state has changed and the profession has changed, and we don’t have those applicants anymore.”
“In the past, we may have interviewed 150 people,” he added later. “We go now and interview 30.”
This trend isn’t relegated to the district’s teachers.
Perhaps the most documented shortage has come in the district’s transportation department, which has been in constant flux for most of the last year amid drivers’ demands for better pay and treatment.
Murphy said there are 14 open routes this year — a figure that doesn’t include the dozen or so daily absences — and at times schools have had to ask parents to drop off or pick up their children. Fourteen bus drivers have resigned since July, with half leaving for better paying jobs, officials said.
This year, the district had to hire 88 “brand-new, zero-year” paraprofessionals, which Murphy called “a big turnover” in a profession that works with some of the district’s most vulnerable students. Despite the new hires, there are still nine unfilled para-positions.
Other positions in maintenance and technology have remained unfilled after multiple advertising campaigns that have drawn few or no applicants, officials said.
For example, the position of network specialist in the technology department produced no viable candidates after two rounds of advertising. The third round produced “one fully qualified” candidate who eventually asked to be removed from consideration after learning of the compensation package.
“If we don’t do something, the quality of education is going to slide in our parish,” Murphy said. “We’re at a crossroads. This is a critical situation, and this tax measure would create a dedicated funding source for us to rely on.”
‘This is our chance’
In August, the Livingston Parish School Board approved the district’s largest-ever compensation package — more than $12.5 million that went back to employees.
But of that total, less than $2 million went toward permanent pay raises since the extra dollars were mostly tied to an increase in sales tax revenues and not recurring funds, Murphy said.
“We had an excess in sales tax and did some good budgeting, but from a system perspective, it is unexpected money, and you cannot rely on that money annually and then you put in a permanent salary structure,” Murphy said.
One of the things people don’t understand, Murphy said, is when districts give raises, those raises are permanent. That makes it even more critical that they be tied to recurring funds, Murphy said.
“We can never reduce that,” he said. “The only way we can address that… is a reduction in force. We laid off like 41 or 42 positions [in the late 2000s] because we were $10 million short. We don’t want to get in that situation.”
Livingston Parish school leaders have pointed to the lack of funding sources as the biggest reason for disparity in pay. A May 2022 report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that Livingston Parish received an average of $722 per student in local ad valorem taxes, which ranked 65th out of 69 districts statewide.
Unlike nearby districts such as East Baton Rouge and Ascension, Livingston Parish lacks industrial development, making it even more reliant on sales tax.
Despite the collective desire to see school employees be better compensated, not all have been in favor of a new tax. In November’s EFID meeting, Director Scott Jones argued that the school system should first look internally to find money for pay raises before proposing a tax — a sentiment that has been echoed by others since the School Board approved proposing the tax.
“You look at other options that are good for this community and school system, and I think the public will be very supportive of a tax if needed after that,” Jones said in that meeting.
Murphy said the school system is already contracted with two outside auditors that look at the books. Though it would be possible to find some extra money, Murphy said it wouldn’t be possible to fund the 10-percent pay raise for all employees without additional —and reliable — dollars coming in.
“There’s no way we could possibly find $20 million [in our existing budget] to do an initiative like this,” he said.
Nearly 90 percent of the Livingston Parish Public Schools payroll comes from the General Fund, which is primarily funded through state Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) revenue. Other revenues the district receives can only be used for certain expenses such as federal programs, construction projects and maintenance, Murphy said.
The district’s total payroll for instruction personnel is $131 million annually, with another $21 million going toward support staff. Benefits for all employees cost another $77 million.
If the tax passes, Murphy said the next step for the district would be to hire a consulting company to conduct “a salary analysis of our overall structure.” That company would make recommendations “for further adjustments” to the pay scale that would then be presented to the School Board.
“I can contract with a firm to come in [and tell us what we need to do],” Murphy said, “but if I don’t have the funding to dedicate to that recommendation, what good is the recommendation?”
Murphy urged those with concerns to attend the upcoming town hall meetings and ask questions.
“This is truly our chance as citizens of Livingston Parish to make a transformational change in our parish and ensure the future of education right here in Livingston Parish,” Murphy said.
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