Friday, February 6, 2009

Education, health care may be subject to budget cuts

Possible budget cuts for education $538 million
Possible budget cuts for health care: $412 million

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's large budget shortfall could hammer public education and health care programs next year, as the Jindal administration asks for proposals that could eliminate up to $950 million in health and education spending.

Though a recent round of midyear budget reductions caused few noticeable ripples to students and health care patients, the cuts being considered for the new budget year that begins July 1 could be dramatic to cope with a drop in state general fund income pegged at $1.2 billion.

The governor's budget crafters sent out letters this month to state offices that outlined ranges of budget cuts for which they should offer proposals. The maximum numbers for health care and education were hefty: $538 million for education and $412 million for health care — of that, more than $380 million each for public colleges and the state health department.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget officer, Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, said that the figures were preliminary and don't necessarily reflect what cuts will be suggested when the governor's 2009-10 budget proposal is delivered to lawmakers in mid-March.

Davis' office gave departments a range of possible cuts and asked them to prioritize their programs, describing what should be slashed first and then what should be stripped from spending as the cuts get more severe. Davis said those answers will help the administration make the decisions of which programs are expendable.

"Some of these cuts are going to be tough cuts to make, but there are no indications that I'm aware of that our revenues are going to go up," she said.

Jindal must present his budget proposal to lawmakers by March 13, and the Legislature will hammer out the final spending plan, which is expected to be significantly less than the $29 billion-plus budget for this year.

Lawmakers are considering tapping into the state's "rainy day" fund and other pots of unspent state money to fill gaps next year, but even that wouldn't fill the entire shortfall. State officials also hope that economic stimulus proposals in Congress could provide aid to Louisiana and that the economy will improve and boost state revenue collections.

But for now, the administration is working with the worst-case scenario, and state officials say the cuts being considered would force grim choices in their agencies, including significant layoffs and sharp reductions in services.

Because health care and higher education are the largest areas of state discretionary spending, they are the most vulnerable to budget cuts.

LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said he's considering a proposal to boost student tuition and fees, perhaps based on type of curriculum, as a way to help offset some cuts. But he said that won't be nearly enough.

To cope with the rest of a cut that could be as high as 14 percent of the budget for LSU's main campus, Martin said he's looking at hundreds of layoffs, major program eliminations, larger class sizes, shortened library hours and an array of other reductions.

"This is a big hole in the hull of the flagship institution, and I'm not sure the pumps can operate fast enough for us to keep the ship afloat," Martin said of the range of possible cuts.

In the Department of Health and Hospitals, a $381 million cut could multiply into an even larger hit.

The state uses its money to draw federal matching dollars for the state Medicaid program for the poor, elderly and disabled in a nearly 3-to-1 match. Medicaid is the largest portion of the health care budget, so the cut for which DHH was told to prepare could top $1 billion with the loss of federal money.

Joe Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, said he worried that could mean large cuts to the money the state pays nursing homes to take care of Medicaid patients.

Donchess said he's hopeful about a congressional bill that would provide additional Medicaid money to states. He said if DHH is forced to take the cut that is in discussion now, it would be devastating to health care services for the most vulnerable Louisiana residents.

"This is potentially one of those death-knell types of budgets," he said.

A handful of offices weren't asked to draw up budget cut recommendations.

Davis said the governor wants to protect the state's free college tuition program, known as TOPS, and also won't seek cuts to the state ethics board or the Division of Administrative Law, which handles ethics violation cases.

Jindal made ethics a centerpiece of his campaign for office and successfully pushed for an overhaul of state ethics laws when he took office, and Davis said he wants to protect ethics enforcement despite the tight budget.

Meanwhile, the governor's budget writers also are looking at undoing some of the restrictions that lock up certain parts of the budget and keep them safe from cuts. Davis said the governor may ask lawmakers to free more areas of spending to spare the most severe reductions from falling solely on education and health care.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

'Go Grant' program needs more funding

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The state's financial aid program for needy college students is running over budget, expected to cost $3 million more to cover all eligible students than the $24 million budgeted.

Louisiana's higher education leaders have agreed to fill in the gap this year, despite a round of budget cuts on colleges. But the state's troubled financial situation next year could threaten the "Go Grant" program.

More than 12,000 students received grants through the program in the fall semester.

Melanie Amrhein, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said Wednesday that the grants were projected to cost $27.3 million for the 2008-09 school year — but the governor and lawmakers only budgeted $24 million for the program.

Amrhein said the actual shortfall figure won't be known until March, the billing deadline for spring semester grants.

College system presidents agreed to cover any shortfall so no students should be left without their expected financial aid this year, said Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen.

"We made a commitment to students at the beginning of the year to fund these grants, and we stand behind that promise," Clausen said in a statement. "Our number one priority is to support the students we serve in reaching their goal of attaining a degree and Go Grants play an important role in meeting that mission."

The program's future, however, is less clear.

Lawmakers created the Go Grant program for the 2007-08 school year, pushed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and college leaders. Now in its second year, the program has grown from its initial $15 million and is projected to top $40 million by its fourth year.

The grants, up to $2,000 a year, are targeted to low- and moderate-income students and nontraditional students, 25 years or older. The program pays for costs that aren't covered by federal financial aid and the state's free college tuition program called TOPS. Only Louisiana residents are eligible for grants, and the maximum lifetime award is $10,000 per student.

But the Office of Student Financial Assistance might be in line for budget cuts that could curtail the program or shut it down entirely next year, as the state copes with an expected $1.2 billion drop in state general fund in the new year that begins July 1.

The governor's budget crafters asked the student aid office to offer recommendations for cutting anywhere from $20 million to nearly $37 million from its $129 million budget next year.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget officer, Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, said cuts to TOPS are off the table, so Amrhein said that would force cuts to the GO Grant program to save TOPS.

Davis has said the reduction figures were preliminary and don't necessarily reflect what cuts will be suggested when the governor's 2009-10 budget proposal is delivered to lawmakers in mid-March. Her office gave nearly all state departments a range of possible cuts and asked them to prioritize their programs. Lawmakers will hammer out the final version of the budget during a regular session later this year.

Girl makes perfect score on ACT

The (Baton Rouge) Advocate

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Perfect. But Melaine Sebastian will be the first to tell you that the word doesn't suit her.

But perfection is what Sebastian, 17, accomplished in December when she took the ACT and achieved a composite score of 36 on the college entrance exam.

It's a feat that few students accomplish. In fact, last academic year, only 514 students in the

country and only five in Louisiana achieved a 36 on the test, according to Ed Colby, a spokesman for American College Test.

"Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of students who take the test earn a score of 36," Colby said.

The test was taken by more than 1.4 million students last year and assesses students' skills in math, reading, English, science and writing.

Melanie Sebastian sits in her room on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009.

It was Sebastian's third time to take the test, but charm had nothing to do with it.

The first time Sebastian took the ACT she scored a 26. She was in the seventh grade.

The testing was part of a Duke University study that gauged the effectiveness of gifted programs.

The second time was in early 2008. She scored a 33.

A little positive peer pressure from her friends convinced her to try again. So she decided to buy one of those test preparation manuals to help. If not for Hurricane Gustav causing her family's evacuation to Monroe, she said, she likely wouldn't have cracked the guide open.

"I think what helped me are the challenging classes I have at Lafayette High," Sebastian said. She's in the gifted program at the high school.

The hardest part of the test? The essay.

"Twenty-five minutes doesn't cut it for me," she said. "I think I can write a kickin' essay if I had the time. I'm picky when it comes to word choice and when it comes to structuring my sentences."

Her perfect score isn't really the topic of many conversations.

"It's hard to talk about," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "You try to encourage friends who have scores they worked hard for, too. I try to remind people, I'm just a kid. I work hard for what I do earn."


Information from: The Advocate,

BESE science and religion policy language delays inevitable

Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — There are disagreements on what exactly will result from policy language the state education board recently adopted for teaching science in Louisiana public schools, but one thing looks pretty clear: sooner or later Louisiana is going back to court in a case that will look like a descendant of the 1987 argument over "scientific creationism."

Barbara Forrest, staunch opponent of anything that might bring the religious-based concept into science classes, thinks such a fight is just what some supporters of the new state policy have in mind. She points fingers at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that backs, among other things, the idea of intelligent design — the concept that there is scientific evidence that living organisms were designed.

An institute spokesman denies any desire for a court fight over the issue and points to its public position in support of intelligent design but against requiring its teaching in public schools.

"We're certainly not looking for a test case and we're not trying to legislate the instruction of intelligent design," said John West of the Discovery Institute.

So, what has Forrest worried?

Earlier this month the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to establish policy language in light of last year's legislation that allows local school systems to supplement state-approved science texts with supplemental materials to encourage "critical thinking" on science topics.

Opponents questioned the need for such a law and said it's likely a means of trying to infuse science classes with concepts based on faith rather than science. Proponents said it would merely allow science-based questions about topics such as evolution.

Charged with implementing the law, BESE staff came up with draft policy language that included this sentence: "Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes."

Louisiana's law giving creationsm equal time with evolution in science class was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. In 2005, a federal judge barred the school system in Dover, Pa., from teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in high school biology classes. The judge said intelligent design is religion masquerading as science.

Given those decisions, the draft BESE language would seem to be sound policy that would keep teachers out of legally questionable territory.

BESE has the right to block materials it deems inappropriate and it may be called upon to do so by a parent who believes his or her child is being taught religion instead of science.

But, if BESE doesn't want to specifically block intelligent design now, will it do so if a teacher introduces an intelligent design text into a classroom?

If it doesn't, Forrest and others will surely go to court.

If it does, some backers of intelligent design — whether supported by the Discovery Institute or not — would likely do the same, perhaps under the banner of the new legislation.




Principal dies

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — A Shreveport middle school principal has died.

Bernadine Anderson, assistant to the Caddo Parish school district superintendent, said 41-year-old Monica Jenkins-Moore died on Sunday. Jenkins-Moore had been the principal at Linwood Middle School since 2004.

Grief counselors were available for students and staff Monday.


Information from: The Times,

Man pleads guilty to fraud against school board

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — A Louisiana man accused of participating in a scheme to defraud the Bossier Parish School Board has pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

Federal prosecutors say 41-year-old Mark Edward Rowe, of Plain Dealing, worked in the school board's maintenance department and knowingly approved invoices to pay contractors for air conditioning work they failed to perform.

Rowe also allegedly failed to conduct proper inspections of the work and falsely certified that the proper equipment was in place.

Rowe faces up to 20 years in prison following his guilty plea Wednesday. His sentencing is set for May 20.

Rowe was one of five defendants indicted in the case last month. Two others already have pleaded guilty to fraud charges.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.


Teacher attacks principal, gets arrested

MARKSVILLE, La. (AP) — A Marksville High School teacher and basketball coach has been arrested after he allegedly attacked the principal at his school.

Authorities say 27-year-old Roch Michael Bordelon of Marksville was arrested Monday afternoon and booked with battery of a schoolteacher and disturbing the peace.

Marksville Police said on Tuesday that Bordelon, a special education teacher and the girls basketball coach, is accused of punching and kicking Principal Duke Allgood.

Avoyelles Parish Schools Superintendent Dwayne Lemoine said Bordelon is on administrative leave without pay.

Allgood said he wasn't able to comment on the incident because it is a personnel matter.


Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk,