Last month, the Caddo Parish School Board unanimously put on the ballot in May a plan to use $108 million in borrowing capacity for its schools, keeping a tax authorized until 2033 at 6 mills worth to back it. Whether a shrinking school system needs that much is debatable.
The board and Superintendent Lamar Goree have argued that, despite the slow trickle of students out of the system, that conceivably this much in capital expenditures is needed because of decrepit older schools and population shifts. The district plans as a result to close six schools but to build three more. The six older ones, many several decades old that would cost substantially if renovated or reopened, sit in parts of the parish towards north Shreveport and its center that have seen steady population declines; new ones consolidate in those areas and one in an area of population growth in the southeast. In essence, the thinking is if a lot of money must be spent, it should go to new schools and closer to populations being served than in rehabilitating older structures dispersed in geography.
The bond measure also would include expansion at other schools for classrooms, auxiliary buildings, new buses, and equipment replacement. On these items, a good case can be made for spending, and to a degree so can the idea that swapping out fewer new and better-situated buildings for greater old and worse-situated structures.
Undoubtedly Caddo continues to undergo contraction than can argue for the validity of this view. Around Shreveport’s population peak in about 1980 the system had over 48,000 students in 72 public schools;two decades ago, after a small dip in total parish population brought it back to a record high the system had almost 57,000 in 79 public schools; this past fall, just over 41,000 students attended 66 public schools.
But the fact is that the older schools were part of a student population that required an infrastructure now largely in place for a pupil population a quarter less than 20 years ago. That some schools are bursting at the seams demanding additions funded from a renewed millage, and that a newly-constructed school could relieve some of this pressure demonstrates only geographic/demographic changes, not overall need.
To put it another way, why are the 6 mills necessary to support infrastructure needs of 79 schools and 57,000 students needed in full to back 63 schools with 41,000 students? Especially when the effort would approximately double the outstanding debt of the system? Perhaps the most contentious issue would be over the $24 million proposed for a kindergarten through 8th grade school in southeast Shreveport, a similar idea twice rejected by voters.
Maybe more fiscally sound would be to defeat the proposition in May. Since the 1997 measure has capacity to vary in millage amount, as soon as the next set of bonds funded by it gets paid off it decreases, in this instance to 5 mills. That would start in the summer if more aren’t sold, as a consequence of voters denying authority to do so (or the board, for whatever reason, decides not to commit even with the authority).
If that happened, perhaps the southeastern new construction could be delayed or never attempted, while the other two consolidations into new schools could continue. Maybe more cost effective would be more expansion of more existing schools instead of a new facility, pitched at a lower cost that could stay around the 5 mill mark.
Voter approval of the measure as it stands should depend upon the ability of the district to answer the question of why the same millage must continue for a significantly smaller market. If it can demonstrate qualitatively better return on investment on their current concept than from the alternative above, only then should voters give their consent.