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Editor’s note: In August 2016, widespread flooding in south Louisiana was particularly devastating to Livingston Parish. Many residents simply abandoned flooded homes and never returned after losing all their possessions and receiving little in the way of recovery efforts from FEMA.

Melissa Thies of St. Tammany, who describes herself as a “taxpayer in the know,” has made a series of public records requests from the St. Tammany Parish School Board which, coincidentally, rather than devote its efforts to reopening schools on schedule following the coronavirus outbreak, did take the time to revise its public records policy by doubling the cost of records from the statewide standard of 25 cents per page to 50 cents.

A number of interesting discoveries was made through her efforts, all of which are supported by official school board records. Today’s story, written by her and posted previously on Facebook, is reprinted here:

By Melissa Thies

Let’s revisit that devastating fall day in 2016……

Livingston Parish was one of the hardest hit areas of a flood.  Thirteen people lost their lives, and property damage was never really able to be solidly calculated, but estimates of $10 – 15 billion have been thrown around.  Hard times for our neighbors down Highway 12, right?  Or an opportunity to grow a school board general fund by several thousand bucks and win an award in the process?

St Tammany Parish School Administration went into full-on fundraising mode, raising over $330,000 in money, gift cards and school supplies for victims.  The media claimed this to be the “most successful fundraiser ever held by the St Tammany Parish Public School System.”  The then-superintendent even “earns” Superintendent of the Year touting this as a major accomplishment.  But wait, isn’t this type of activity by a political subdivision against the Louisiana State Constitution?  There seems to be some confusion within the Louisiana Legislative Auditor agency regarding the constitutionality of this, but it is a valid question.  Does it even make sense for this to be legal to use taxpayer resources (such as the accounting staff of the local school board) to manage such an activity?  Our state laws must protect us somehow against the risk of misappropriation of funds from this type of activity, right?

Review of the school board general ledger indicates that by September 13, 2016, a total of almost $113,000 was deposited into a liability account and deposits were marked “DONATIONS FLOODING STPCARES”.  For those non-accountants, this means the money was put into the bank account and general fund, but was marked as being owed to someone else.  Shortly after, the money starts to be disbursed, with funds going to the “St Helena Parish SB”, “Tangipahoa Parish SB”, “Livingston Parish SB” and many checks directly to individuals.  There were no other disbursements of the cash after October 14, 2016 – that is until January 19, 2017.

Several things happened on January 19, 2017.  Since October 14, 2016, the general ledger had indicated a credit balance in the liability account of $7,753.76.  This means that not all of the donations that had been collected were disbursed, leaving $7,753.76 in the general fund and in cash available in the bank.  (Remember that number; it will be significant a little later.)  Review of the visitor log on January 19, 2017, just might confirm that on this day investigators with Louisiana Legislative Auditor arrived at 321 N. Theard early that morning.

Also, on this date, there is a journal entry numbered 1267 that indicates the amount of $7,753,76 was transferred out of the liability account and the transaction was described as “Correction Move to Donations”.  This left a $0 balance in the liability account – as if to show all of the money collected had been given out.  Then, later in the day as indicated by journal entry number 3981, a transfer back into the liability account for the same amount was made.  Within a short period of time after January 19, 2017, the remaining $7,753.76 was then disbursed to “Livingston Parish SB” and “St Helena Parish SB”.  I will let you draw your own conclusions about what possibly transpired throughout the day on January 19, 2017, to encourage the administration to disburse the remainder of the funds that had been collected.

What would have happened to the funds if Legislative Auditor had not shown up?  If the overage would have remained in the general fund, what would the overage have been used to cover?  I have been told to stay in my lane and not ask any questions, but you should be asking these questions and more at this point, especially if you occupied a seat on the St Tammany Parish School Board during this time period.  Taxpayers, especially those who gave so generously to this activity certainly deserve answers.

You might be asking what is significant about the figure, $7,753.76, that remained in the general fund until the day Legislative Auditor showed up.  Well, let me not keep you in suspense…..

Just FACTS – Let’s visit the proposed general fund budgets from fiscal years 2016 and 2017.  There is a line item in these budgets with an account number “2321-511100 Salary – Superintendent”.  The budget for FY 2016 indicates an amount of $202,732 for this line item, while the budget for FY 2017 indicates a proposed amount of $210,385.  These amounts were the base salary the Superintendent received for FY 2016 and what was being proposed at the time for FY 2017.  The difference between these two would seemingly indicate the “raise” that the superintendent would be getting, $7,653.

In addition, in a recent response to a public record request, I received this copy of the check that the then-Superintendent donated to the flood fundraiser personally.

I am not sure that you need to be an accountant, auditor, investigator, investigative reporter, Inspector General, Legislative Auditor, or Attorney General to know what is coming next.  The increase in the base salary ($7,653) plus the personal DONATION to the fundraiser ($100) is…..

Did you guess it correctly?  $7,753!

Voila!  And that is how we roll at the St Tammany Parish School Board, but taxpayers can’t have an Inspector General in the parish, much less one internal auditor that doesn’t report to or is directed by the people they are auditing.  It really is a shame, or a sham, not sure which.  Lots more to come on this same topic and many, many other issues.  Ms. Rester’s history lessons are much more interesting than mine.  I invite you to contact her (email above) or any school board member for her lessons.

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If you should peek into the fiscal cortex of a Republican legislator’s brain, you’d see a mish-mash of conflicting ideas that’re reflective of the disastrous Jindal years, more than four years after he left office.

Apparently, the disciples of Grover Norquist learned little of the economic misrule that was emblematic of the Jindal years of consecutive budgetary shortfalls brought about by the eight-year orgy of tax cuts and tax exemptions granted for Walmarts and Family Dollar stores across the length and breadth of Louisiana.

Jindal repeatedly used one-time money to fund recurring expenses—until, that is, he was halfway out the door when it suddenly occurred to the so-called legislative “fiscal hawks” to do what they should’ve done years before—impose limits on how governors could use that one-time money to plug gaping holes in the state budget.

I suggest that they’ve learned little because, believe it or not, they’re at it again.

Exhibit A: Those fiscal hawks, taking full advantage of the drop in state revenue caused by the coronavirus shutdown, are attempting to cut spending for such luxuries as teacher pay, police protection, health care for the poor and housing state inmates. Read Tyler Bridges’s story about that HERE.

Exhibit B: Reps. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge) and Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette) have submitted a couple of house concurrent resolutions that would grant an additional $1.1 billion in tax breaks to the oil and gas industry and corporate franchisees.

Edmonds’s HCR 43 would suspend the corporate franchise tax until 2021 at a cost of $413.6 million to the state.  To see the legislative fiscal notes to HCR 43, go HERE.

Exhibit C: Sen. Mark Abraham has introduced SB 272 which calls for a constitutional amendment to allow industrial corporations to establish the amount they pay in local property taxes through private negotiations.

Bishop’s HCR 65 would suspend severance taxes levied on oil, natural gas, distillate and condensate “from the date of adoption of the resolution through the 60th day following final adjournment of the 2021 legislative session” and would cost the state $693.8 million, according to the FISCAL NOTES.

How’s that for fiscal responsibility? In the face of shrinking revenues, we’re going to give huge breaks to the corporations—just like always—while popping it to the middle class.

And we wonder why we continue to wallow in the mud at the bottom of all the good economic indicators while other states stroll past on the nice, dry sidewalk. We in Louisiana are the ragged street urchins of a Dickens novel and the legislature is our Uriah Heep.

Ask yourself, local butcher shop proprietor, do you get the opportunity to “negotiate” your tax rate? Ms. dress shop owner, have you been granted any tax breaks lately?

Ms. dress shop owner, have your taxes been suspended?

Mr. and Mrs. Bakery owners, have you been exempted from paying your annual business license fee?

I’m going out on a limb and venturing the answers to those three questions are no, no and no.

But then, unlike the oil and gas companies, you probably didn’t pour thousands of dollars into legislative political campaigns or hire a team of lobbyists to protect your interests at the State Capitol. And the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) doesn’t speak for you because it’s too busy taking care of the big boys.

Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, pretty well summed it up when he said, “Louisiana is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, and we all need to do our part. But instead of looking out for front-line workers and their families, the Legislature is proposing more than $1 billion in new tax breaks for corporations. These tax breaks would come at the expense of students, families and workers who need Louisiana’s help now more than ever.

“The Legislature’s first priority should be to help those who’ve been hurt most by this pandemic – not the state’s largest corporations. Please join us in calling on the House Ways and Means Committee to reject these ill-considered giveaways,” he added.

To which we can only add, “Amen.”

 

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We are constantly encouraged to participate in our government.

Our civics teachers in high school drummed into our heads that we should get involved.

Write your representative or senators, we are told, because it’s the best way to make your thoughts known.

Our U.S. representatives and senators even have web pages on which we may contact them about a particular issue.

Do you really want to know just how effective it is to contact your representative or senator?

Do you truly believe a warm-blooded human actually reads your letter?

Are you interested in learning how difficult it is to get your message heard over the hum of the campaign money-counting machines in your congressperson’s office?

If your answer to the last three questions is yes, read on.

I recently went onto Rep. Garret Graves’s web page and clicked on the “Contact” link and sent him an email, the basis of which dealt with the 2016 flood.

I explained that like thousands of other victims, when seeking flood relief, I was directed by FEMA to the Small Business Administration table where I was given an application form for an SBA loan to repair damage to my home which took in 33 inches of water.

No one at FEMA or SBA bothered to explain that applying for a loan made me ineligible for a FEMA grant or even if I was offered a loan and refused it, the fact that it was offered automatically made me ineligible for a FEMA grant.

Read that again: even if I turned the loan offer down, I would be considered ineligible for a grant by virtue of the fact that a loan was offered.

I explained to Rep. Graves that my home was paid for at the time of the flood and that I did not carry flood insurance because we were in one of the highest-elevated parts of Denham Springs that had never even come close to flooding.

I also informed Rep. Graves that like hundreds, perhaps thousands of other victims, I was 76 years old, retired, and would never live to see my now brand-new $124,000 mortgage paid off.

I asked him to look into the possibility of loan forgiveness for the flood victims as had been done for other disaster victims and which was being considered [and subsequently approved] for potential recipients of SBA loans as part of the then-proposed $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Here is the response I received from his office:

 

Thanks for taking the time to reach out to me about COVID-19. As we work to keep Louisianans safe and to minimize the economic damages associated with America’s response to this uniquely challenging threat, let’s keep this fact in mind: In Louisiana, we’ve seen our share of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters; people here know how to be resilient and pull through hard circumstances like this, and I’m confident that we are going to come out on the other side strong.

As you know, the United States is responding to a global outbreak of a respiratory disease caused by a new type of coronavirus, called COVID-19. Unfortunately, cases of COVID-19 and instances of community spread of the virus are being reported in a growing number of states. Following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, the President of the United States declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency.

Congress – and the entire federal government – is acting quickly to help Americans impacted by the coronavirus. We are working to provide regulatory relief, economic support, and innovations in our private industries to combat this threat. So far, the House and Senate have passed two major pieces of support legislation:

  • On March 4, we authorized $8 billion in emergency funding for health research into COVID-19 to develop high-quality diagnostic kits, more effective treatment plans, and a vaccine to prevent the further spread of the disease.
  • On March 18, President Trump signed a second piece of legislation called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This package was focused on individuals and families and ensures accessible testing, emergency paid leave, and support and flexibility for small businesses. You can read more about this bill here.

Our next step in the Congress is to pass legislation to deliver further assistance for our economy, including financial relief for those businesses and industries that are being hit the hardest by disruptions related to the pandemic response. As this bill comes together, my focus is on making sure the needs of South Louisiana’s families, individuals, and businesses are addressed.

This is a fast-evolving crisis, and things continue to change as new information becomes available every day. Please visit the coronavirus page on my website, where we are posting a running list of information, resources, and useful links to help you navigate this challenge. Additionally, please feel free to call our office or the Louisiana statewide call network (211) if you have additional questions or concerns. I appreciate you taking the time to reach out to me with your thoughts and hope you’ll stay in contact as this issue progresses.

Sincerely,

Garret Graves
Member of Congress

 

So, there you have it. If you have an issue that’s dear to your heart, just write your congressperson. [S]he’s there to help.

 

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You’d think Gov. John Bel Edwards would be a little better at reading the tea leaves.

After all, it was Louisiana’s teachers who first pushed him over the top to win the governor’s election over David Vitter in 2015.

And the teachers again provided needed support when he was challenged by businessman Eddie Rispone who had the backing of would-be kingmaker Lane Grigsby.

So, how did Edwards reward teachers for their support?

A raise of $1,000 per year in 2019. That’s $83 per month before taxes—and that was nearly four years into his first term before he got around to doing that much.

Yes, I know a lot of workers in Louisiana didn’t get raises of $83 per month but before jumping in with that argument, consider what teachers are expected to do (other than teach in a classroom) and how their salaries stack up with other states.

Last April, the NEA released FIGURES that showed Louisiana’s teachers (before that $1,000-per-year boost) still ranked 13th lowest in the nation.

And those same figures showed that the national average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, had actually decreased 4.5 percent over the previous decade. Teachers were paid 21.4 percent less than similarly-education and experienced professionals, the NEA study revealed.

The national average teacher salary increased from $59,539 for the 2016-17 school year to $60,477 for 2017-18,

The average pay for teachers in Louisiana was $50,256.

So, what did Edwards to this year to try and bring teacher into alignment with other states when he submitted his proposed budget for next year?

Crickets chirping. Nothing. Nada. Nil. Zip.

And his wife was a teacher before he was elected governor. His daughter is a school counselor.

As might be expected, teachers took umbrage at the governor’s slight—as well they should have.

An acquaintance offered a defense of sorts for the governor’s omission. “The Republican legislature wouldn’t approve another teacher pay raise anyway, so he just didn’t brother.”

My response to that is, “So what? Put it in the budget and put the onus on the legislators. Let them explain why Louisiana cannot support its teachers. There are, by the way, part-time legislators who pull down more than starting teachers in this state.

Gov. Edwards did finally reverse himself, but only after teachers bristled publicly. But you’d never know he truly felt their wrath when he offered up a $500 per year raise. That’s $42 per month, a little more than a dollar a day. You can’t even go to McDonald’s with that.

If Edwards is considering a run at John Kennedy’s Senate seat, he’d do well to remember the teachers.

And don’t give me that worn-out B.S. about teachers only working nine months a year. That’s pure bunk. No sooner than the school year is over than teachers must turn their attention to the coming year by preparing lesson plans, cleaning out classrooms, re-stocking supplies and attending meetings.

Teachers endure problems we can only imagine in our jobs. As a news reporter, I would get irate calls from subjects of my stories but try sitting across the desk from an arrogant parent who won’t accept the explanation that their kid, who never received discipline or help with his homework at home, is disruptive, a problem student and deserved that poor grade or suspension.

Teachers must watch for signs their students are abused at home. Ever had to do that in your job? Ever had to look at a bruised child and asked him or her to tell you what happened? It’s a pretty depressing responsibility and can leave teachers sickened with nightmares.

Sometimes teachers are called on to stop a bullet to save a child—and they do it, Alex Jones’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Test papers are taken home by teachers who, while the rest of the family is watching American Idol, must plod through 25 or 30 test papers for grading. They sacrifice time with their own families so they can devote time to their jobs.

Teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to purchase materials for their classrooms. And believe me, that isn’t cheap. I knew a teacher in Lincoln Parish who bought shoes for a child who had none.

They are saddled with tons of paperwork other than test grading and they are burdened with bureaucratic requirements in preparation for standardized testing and if the kids don’t do well, it’s the teacher who bears the brunt of evaluations by politicians who decide who is and who isn’t a good teacher—without ever meeting the teacher or sitting in her classroom.

Teachers must step in to stop fights and God help her if she’s a little too physical with the kids. Might as well go ahead and retain legal counsel.

And sometimes a teacher spots potential in a kid no one else has seen. They take the student under their wing, nurture his/her talents, and develop a kid everyone thought had no future into a productive citizen. On that point, I speak from experience. Thank you, Mrs. Garrett, Miss Lewis, Miss Hinton, Mr. Peoples and Mr. Ryland. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Teachers deserve better, Gov. Edwards. As a friend suggested, “Go big or go home.”

You gave state police enormous pay raises. You gave your cabinet members substantial increases.

Teachers, cafeteria workers and other school employees deserve nothing less than the same consideration you’ve given state troopers and cabinet members.

You’re beginning to look a lot like Bobby Jindal.

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If you’re 65 or over and live in Louisiana, get out now.

If you’re not yet 65 and live in Louisiana, get out before you reach that age.

According to 24/7 Wall Street, that online service that does surveys on government, consumerism and just about anything else, Louisiana is the 4th worst state in which older Americans can reside.

Worse even than Alabama (though barely: it was 5th worst), but better than West Virginia (the worst), Arkansas (a surprise at 2nd worst) and of course, Mississippi (3rd worst).

We already know that lousy political support makes Louisiana a horrible state for teachers of all ages, so, what, exactly, makes Louisiana such a poor choice for older Americans?

Well, for openers, try these statistics on for size:

Our life expectancy at age 65 of 83.1 years is tied for 8th lowest. West Virginia is lowest at 82.5 years.

We’re 8th highest with 38 percent of our population aged 65 and older with a disability (welcome to my world).

Our poverty rate of 12.4 percent for those 65 and older is tied with Mississippi for 2nd highest in the nation (New Mexico is highest at 13.3 percent).

The $36,345 median income for 65 and older households is 2nd lowest (West Virginia was lowest at $36,147 while Mississippi and Arkansas have the 3rd and 4th lowest median incomes for older households, respectively).

Louisiana has the 10th lowest population aged 65 and older at 720,610 which could mean that our older citizens, like my good friend and Ruston High School classmate John Sachs, took the hint and left the state (though John’s choice of Arkansas is somewhat questionable in retrospect).

In case you’re wondering, the national median income of retirement-age households is $44,992, more than $8,600 higher than Louisiana.

As an added incentive for us old folks to git while the gittin’s good, Louisiana crime rate—both property and violent crime—ranks among the highest in the country. (With our open carry laws and our obsession with guns to protect ourselves, you’d think that figure would be a little lower. Just sayin’.)

But even though I flooded in 2016 and subsequently was screwed by FEMA and the Restore Louisiana program, I was born in this state, my children and grandchildren live here, and while I abhor Baton Rouge traffic, I love Louisiana’s people, our culture, our food and our music.

I’m stayin’.

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