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Xerxes Wilson / The Houma Courier

HOUMA, La. Despite rumors, Terrebonne's top public school administrator says no decisions have been made on cutting positions or programs to deal with an expected $6 million shortfall.

'I want to reassure that the wild rumors that there are going to be massive layoffs are not true,' Superintendent Philip Martin said.

Officials are deliberating over how to fill the revenue gap, with budget hearings coming next month. Typically, the School Board passes its budget by the start of the fiscal year July 1.

The board delayed the process hoping to be buoyed by an additional $25 million annually from a proposed 31-mill property tax increase. Parish voters defeated the tax by a 3-to-1 margin May 4.

Martin said the system has enough vacancies among its roughly 2,400 employees to avoid layoffs.

'We could eliminate 160 teaching positions, and nobody would be laid off,' Martin said. 'There will be no massive layoff.'

However, he said, working at the 'highest levels of austerity' is not ideal.

'Class size is going to continue to creep up,' he said.

Last year, the system had to cope with an $11 million shortfall, which it accomplished partially by cutting about 100 unfilled positions.

Martin speculated that this year could see another 50 positions erased.

Rumored cuts to athletic programs are unlikely because most of the financial burden for the programs is with the individual schools, which raise money to help sustain them, he said.

Martin did note that some academic programs may see reductions or reorganizations.

'Programs address children. It is the last thing you want to touch. It is not the first option but the last option,' he said.

The shortfall is the result of several factors, said Rebecca Breaux, supervisor of finance for the district.

Teacher retirement contribution increases and increases to the district's group insurance program make up most of the gap, she said. The cost of hiring permanent teachers instead of less expensive substitutes also contributes.

The School Board's budget says it expects to end the fiscal year June 30 with a $5.7 million surplus in its general operating fund.

That's about 5 percent of the board's general fund budget, lower than the 7 to 9 percent the state recommends having on hand in case of emergencies and unforeseen expenses, Breaux said.

Even some of the tax proposal's most vocal opponents agreed the school system could use more money, as it ranks last in per-pupil spending statewide.

'There is no doubt in my mind that the school system could use more money,' said Kenny Smith, CEO of the Houma civil engineering firm T. Baker Smith.

He said he wasn't satisfied with the rationale school officials offered for raising the system's property tax rate from 9 to 40 mills.

'Because it will put us in the middle of the pack?' he said. 'That doesn't work this day and age.'

Businesses, real estate interests and the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce were among the tax's most vocal critics but said they'd be behind raising more money with a more thorough plan.

Martin said no decision has been made on whether to seek another tax increase for the schools, but he hasn't ruled out the idea.

'I don't think any school district can expect to continue with doing cut, cut, cut everywhere,' Martin said. 'Our employees have to do more with less. We have been shielding the kids, but you reach the point where you can no longer.'

Martin said like any unsuccessful endeavor, there are regrets about how the tax issue was handled. He said looking forward, he would be open to any option for increasing revenue, including a sales tax.

'The district needs more revenue,' he said. 'I do not have a preference. If people can agree to that, I am receptive to whatever way it happens.'

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