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Louisiana Governor Offers Plan To Alter State-Aid System

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Louisiana's new governor, moving rapidly in his first weeks in office, has presented the state board of education with a plan that would radically alter the system for distributing aid to school districts.

The plan was among several dramatic gestures by Gov. Buddy E. Roemer signaling his intent to reshape state spending at a time when Louisiana's budget is deeply awash in red ink.

Under the Governor's March 22 education proposal, "non-instructional'' aid representing about one-fourth of the state's $1-billion minimum-foundation program would be removed from that fund and combined with similar programs in a single line item in the general-fund budget.

In addition, the Governor's plan would add $68 million to the foundation program to raise the average teacher salary, provide extra pay to veteran teachers, and lower pupil-teacher ratios.

All foundation aid, in turn, would be distributed to districts in the form of block grants, giving local officials broad leeway in deciding how to spend their state monies.

"This could be the most drastic change in education in Louisiana in my memory,'' said James Meza Jr., interim superintendent of the state department of education.

Under Louisiana's constitution, the state board is empowered to decide what the foundation program will fund and how the aid is to be distributed. The panel is expected to open public hearings on Mr. Roemer's plan late this month.

Budget Crisis

The Governor has taken Louisiana's helm at a time when the state is suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Depression.

Shortly after taking the oath of office on March 14, Mr. Roemer called the legislature into a special session and requested temporary "extraordinary powers'' to prevent what he said was an impending shutdown of state government. Lawmakers passed the bill and the Governor signed it March 28.

Under the measure, Mr. Roemer will be allowed to cut as much as 20 percent from department budgets, to reduce or eliminate entire programs, to raise unspecified fees, and to "forgive'' loans that the state has made from dedicated funds to supplement its general fund.

The Governor warned lawmakers during a March 21 joint session that if they failed to act favorably on his proposal, "the state will be literally out of money within 50 days, able to meet no payroll obligations and unable to pay bills.''

"We have no time to wait or to waste,'' Mr. Roemer said.

It is unclear whether the Governor will use his temporary authority to reduce spending for schools. In his address to the legislature, he cited the education department's computer-services system as a potential target for cuts.

'Instructionally Based'

According to Stephanie A. Desselle, Mr. Roemer's top education aide, the "heart'' of his recommendation to the state board is to make the foundation program "instructionally based.''

He suggested removing from the fund $237 million that is now used to pay for such items as transportation and utilities and combining it with other educational support programs to create a single $343-million line item in the general-fund budget.

At the same time, he would add a total of $68 million to the more focused foundation program to raise the state's average teacher salary by 5 percent, from $20,000 to $21,100; extend the number of years in which veteran teachers could be eligible for "seniority'' raises; and hire about 1,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes in the early grades.

The Governor is not proposing a pay raise for administrators because it would be too expensive, Ms. Desselle said.

Richard A. Musemeche, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Executives, said his initial reaction was that the decision "probably would create divisiveness'' among educators.

Governor Roemer also proposed moving the cost of such items as textbooks and teacher benefits into the foundation program.

"Our school districts are telling us they would like more flexibility,'' said Ms. Desselle of the proposal to provide aid to districts in the form of block grants. "If they can save some money in one area, then they can use it somewhere else.''

She also acknowledged that, given fiscal realities, it will be "very difficult'' for the state to find the $68 million to fund the proposed pay raises and class-size reductions.

"We're worse than flat broke,'' she said.

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