The Catholic Commentator

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget proposal to slash more than $16 million in funding to Catholic schools could have devastating effects, especially among low income families, according to diocesan officials.

Edwards revealed what some tagged his “doomsday” budget on Jan 22, a proposal that also lops off millions of dollars in TOPS and health care funding. Edwards said the draconian cuts are necessary to meet the looming $1 billion shortfall.

The governor’s proposal would eliminate funding for the school lunch program and reimbursement for required service for all private schools in the state. Currently, the school lunch program receives about $7.5 million in state funding annually and required services $8.7 million.

In the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the child nutrition program receives an average of $1.5 million annually from the state, a revenue stream that if severed would effectively shut down the program, said Lynda Carville, director of the Child Nutrition Program for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

“It would be devastating,” Carville said. “We would have parents and children who are (eating) free and reduced (cost) meals through the program. They would lose that.

“(Parents) would lose the comfort of knowing there is a meal prepared at school to help nourish the children to support education A hungry child can’t function.”

Carville said in many cases children from low-income families are eating breakfast, lunch and even a hot supper at school for free. She added there are currently four schools where 100 percent of the student body is receiving totally subsidized breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, accounting for a combined 600 students.

“If we don’t have funding, we would have no meals.” Carville matter-of-factly stated.

Rob Tasman, director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was a bit surprised by the proposed cuts only because they account for such a small percentage of the deficit.

“When you’re dealing with a $1 billion deficit, one of the things that strikes me is these two streams of funding have been completely zeroed out and (accounts) for only one half of one percent of that entire deficit,” Tasman said. “It really does not make a lot of sense to go after these two streams of funding when private schools are providing an incredible service to the state in terms of educating its children at a very high capacity, not only just forming them academically but also forming them to be very successful human beings and active citizens who participate in the economy of the state and the culture of the state as well.”

Tasman agreed that eliminating the funding for the school lunch program would create hardships for the neediest of families. Acknowledging “that seems to be a dramatic statement,” Tasman said if the food service providers are not able to pay equitable wages to their employees, “there is no way you will be able to serve the food.”

“If you are able to maintain the workforce, you will have to raise the price of the meal to offset the cost and by doing that you are really pricing out certain families who could not afford the meal,” he added.

Carville said her office employs approximately 180 employees, and is responsible for maintaining equipment in all of the schools, purchasing of all the food, garbage collection and disposal and transporting food when necessary.

“The money is so well utilized,” she said.

The funding allocated for required services was established by the state nearly 30 years ago and reimburses nonpublic schools for collecting data in a number of different categories, including school attendance rates, bus transportation and who utilizes it, teacher certification and teacher development, Tasman said. He added that the law, as originally crafted, requires each school to be reimbursed 100 percent but in three decades that has not happened.

More recently, the reimbursement has come in around 29 percent.

“(The funding) trickles down because obviously that is money that comes in as a source of revenue to a school,” Tasman said. “They receive that check and what they are able to do with that check is up to their discretion but is really used to fund critical programs, like academic programs or extracurricular activities. It’s also used for teacher and professional development.”

Tasman stressed that neither school bus transportation nor textbook funding for nonpublic schools would be affected under Edwards’ proposal.

In meeting with legislators in the days following Edwards’ announcement, Tasman said lawmakers have been receptive in understanding the importance of the funding to private schools but was quick to add that what remains a mystery is how and when the final resolution will play out.

No special sessions are scheduled before the March 11 start of the regular session, but being an even year no new revenue-raising taxes can be passed. Tasman said legislators will be only able to discuss potential solutions during the regular session but any action must be taken during a special session.

The legislature could paint its own conundrum if there is no resolution before the regular session begins because that would only leave lawmakers about three weeks to settle the issue from when the session ends in early June until July 1, when the new budget goes into effect.

“I am reaching out to key legislators in important committees like the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee to communicate to them the importance (of continuing these funding streams),” Tasman said. “First, I am trying to raise the awareness of how we are impacted by this, second, how important these program are to us, and third, be available if there are questions or if (LCCB) can help participate in the solution.”

He noted that funding for required services has been slashed by nearly 40 percent in the past three years as the legislature has continued to struggle with budget deficits.