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District D candidates address budget deficit

by Connor Raborn reporter@hammondstar.com

Candidates for the Tangipahoa Parish School Board District D seat recently responded to a letter from current board member Brett Duncan which pointed to issues around the school system's almost $4.5 million deficit.

The candidates are Terran Perry, Phillip Ridder Jr. and Glenn Westmoreland.

The letter, which ran in the Aug. 3 edition of The Daily Star, highlighted how the deficit has led to 32 school-level jobs being cut, no new money budgeted for facility improvements, and no money for plans to get rid of temporary and old buildings or to address 200 uncertified teachers in the system.

There is also no 13th check budget, meaning employees will basically have a pay cut, and there is no funding for mental health programs for students.

Tangipahoa Parish School System is the least-funded school system per pupil in the state, said Duncan, who is the board member for District E and is running unopposed in the coming election.

"Will Tangipahoa ever properly fund its schools and take the handcuffs off our new superintendent?" Duncan asked, leaving candidates to consider how they propose to fix the system's funding problem.

Terran Perry

In a prepared statement, candidate Terran Perry said he believes parish residents will support a tax to help fund the system once the system can show the money is being spent to its most impactful potential. His opponents oppose a property tax and are in favor of examining spending practices and saving money where possible.

Transparency in operations and decision-making is the key, various partnerships and grant-writing are important tools in fixing the problem, Perry said.

His plan to rebuild the public's trust in the system emphasizes improving school performance with the resources already available and peacefully resolving the desegregation case.

Improved performance involves hiring the most talented and effective staff regardless of gender, race and personal relationships, Perry said, and effective teachers would be willing to teach larger class sizes if they know the disciplinary policies of the school system will protect them.

He posited that transportation routes should be consolidated to have a more efficient number of bus drivers for routes that have too many and suggested a rewards program for safe driving.

Title I funds can be creatively used, he said. The director of nutrition can work with the academic team to utilize an express breakfast, increasing time in class.

"Both teams work with the effective Title I director to determine how the talented teachers can be paid for tutoring during this time in that it is the 'traditional duty' time some are asked to work before normal school hours. I am certain that teachers and support staff would appreciate the extra money," Perry said. "This way, the 'traditional' paper rush to spend Title I funds at the end of each school year that exists in normal school districts won't occur in Tangipahoa Parish."

Phillip Ridder Jr.

Ridder and Westmoreland support money-saving measures too, but not insofar as leading to support for a property tax.

"Nobody -- I don't care who it is -- wants a tax increase,'' Ridder said.

Because of how Ridder feels it reflects on the board, he questioned Duncan's decision to share that there is such a large deficit.

"What happened to the money?" he asked. "I don't know if they've got a money problem or a money spending problem," he said, referencing U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

He addressed the issue of needing to rid campuses of temporary classrooms that are set up in mobile home-like structures. As the owner of DMB Mobile Home Moving, Ridder suggested ways the temporary rooms can be used toward getting new structures.

"Did they consider lease purchasing?" he asked.

He referred to mobile home sellers that allow customers to trade in trailers for credit toward a new home.

His experience as a business owner and as former Independence assistant police chief has led him to establish a business model as the crux of his school system funding platform.

"I think school board needs to be run just like a business, because it is big business for us," he said.

He would like to see jobs created within the system that routinely check how the money is being spent.

Glenn Westmoreland

"We have to work within the resources that we have," Westmoreland said, echoing Perry's statement. But he differs on the property tax issue, similarly to Ridder.

"I don't think raising taxes is the answer," he said.

He suggested an examination of where money could be cut and reallocated to the areas of concern that Duncan mentioned, like temporary rooms and mental health resources. The latter is something Westmoreland knows to be important from his time practicing in the courtroom.

"We're going to have to somehow rely on the state and the federal government to get the money to deal with the mental health issues," he said.

He cited how the federal government has already helped fund safety improvements and said perhaps other federal and state money can be obtained for facility improvements.

The issue of uncertified teachers is one thing that may not require immediate monetary attention in Westmoreland's plans. He said the parish has to do the best it can right now, which may mean hiring some that are close to certification if not completely certified.

"There are uncertified teachers that are very good teachers," he said. "If you don't have the money, you just don't have the money."

Desegregation

Ending the desegregation case is the common point of agreement for all three District D candidates as a money-saving measure.

Perry said engaging in his listed items will provide evidence in the case that the system is giving all children undiscriminating, quality education.

"If you could end the deseg case, that's a lot of money you don't have to spend on attorneys," Ridder said.

Getting parties to come together on the case is necessary to resolving it, Westmoreland said.