Lake Forest grapples with copper theft, funding cuts and rising retirement expenses

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In a meeting that lasted more than two hours, Lake Forest Elementary Charter School Board members on Wednesday grappled with a series of financial challenges facing the 476-student school in the coming months.

Less than a week after the board’s March meeting, the school was vandalized by thieves, who broke into the school’s heating and cooling units to steal copper. Director of finance and operations Bernell St. Cyr said that all the units for building D, and all of the school’s rooftop units were destroyed, causing about $150,000 in damages.

The new units, which had to be installed quickly in advance of state testing, now feature pressure sensors from the Fort Knox Security company that would alert police if the units are tampered with. An additional security guard was hired to guard the units at night and during spring break, prior to these security measures being installed.

St. Cyr said the units were insured, but he would have to submit claims for the security. He said he hoped it would be covered as a necessary measure to protect the units during installation, but they would have to wait and see.

In his financial update, which he introduced as “more good news,” St. Cyr said that the state had announced they miscalculated the 2012-13 per student funding calculation. Although the school year is practically at an end, the state will be taking back $181 per student from schools that have already budgeted for and presumably spent that money.

In addition, schools will have to make a 27.2 percent contribution to the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana in the 2013-14 school year. This is an increase from this year’s rate of 24.5 percent, and an estimated $74,907 hit to Lake Forest’s budget.

Bernell St. Cyr said he remembered telling Principal Mardele Early, when the school was first started several years ago, “You just don’t understand. No one pays 15.5 percent to match to employee’s retirement.” The rate has nearly doubled in four years.

In the past, Early has advocated for keeping the school in the state teacher program, especially because of its impact on more experienced instructors who have paid into the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana system for years. Now, Early said the organization will have to look into the options for private retirement plans just to balance the books.

“There is no end. There is no ceiling to this. There is no system as to how many percentage points this will go up,” Early said.

Asked about the school’s budget, St. Cyr said that the only places he could find that money were areas related to classroom instruction. He said that was the last place he wanted to make cuts.

“When is this going to stop?” he asked. “I guess, when the lights go out, someone will get the message.”

The meeting was attended by members Denise Williams, Gina Dupart, Windi Brown, and Brian K. Richburg, Sr., and president Lee Caston. Also present was operations manager Robin Gorman. Absent were members Donald Pate and Leila Eames.

The board adjourned its 1:30 p.m. meeting at 3:54 p.m.

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