Inside Report: EBR bills next education battle in Legislature

While Common Core has sparked lots of vitriol at the State Capitol, arguments over the East Baton Rouge Parish school district are not far behind.

Leaders of the school system are waging a three-front war on bills that would overhaul operations.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, is pushing a bill aimed at improving the district by giving principals sweeping new authority.

The measure, Senate Bill 636, has cleared the Senate Education Committee and is awaiting a vote in the full Senate, likely Monday.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, is sponsoring a similar plan, House Bill 1177.

It sparked a hearing that lasted until 11 p.m. April 16 and was supposed to be debated again April 23.

Backers say they have the votes to get the bill out of committee.

However, debate was delayed until next week amid hopes of a compromise that avoids yet another lengthy, testy hearing.

In a highly unusual move, both sides spent about five hours Wednesday night trying to find common ground.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, and a member of the House Education Committee, went back and forth between two rooms meeting with officials in both camps.

“I told them I was going to do it just like a mediation,” said Broadwater, a lawyer. “I am cautiously optimistic.”

Finally, state Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, is sponsoring a bill that would shrink the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board from 11 to seven members.

That measure, House Bill 1178, has passed the House and Governmental Affairs Committee and next faces a vote in the full House.

What makes the trio of bills so volatile?

This year’s debates mark the third year in a row that the district has been the target of major legislation.

Backers barely fought off efforts in 2013 and 2012 to pave the way for a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

But those bills required the approval of a supermajority in the House and Senate — 70 and 26, respectively.

Only that requirement, and united opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus in the state House, blocked final approval.

No such high hurdle exists this time.

All three bills require only majority approval — 53 in the 105-member House and 20 in the 39-member Senate.

White got majority approval for his breakaway bills.

They were considered a heavier lift than the bills aimed at giving principals more discretion to hammer out budgets, recruit and hire personnel and oversee curriculum.

Principals also would operate under management contracts of up to five years and be subject to dismissal if they fail to meet performance goals spelled out in the written agreement.

In addition, the influential Baton Rouge Area Chamber has switched sides.

The group opposed both of the breakaway bills.

BRAC not only backs the White, Carter and Honoré bills, it is credited with helping to write the Carter and White measures, and BRAC Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp has spent hours at the State Capitol on the issue.

Common Core has sparked heated arguments for all six weeks of the session, in part because of charges that the federal government is too immersed in what should be state and local school issues.

Similarly, the battle over the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is a fight over the role of state government in trying to upgrade a single school district.

White, Carter and their allies believe the district has had years to make major improvements and come up short.

Principals are regarded as the make-or-break educator in any public school.

Give them more autonomy, let them be creative and classroom performance will rise, the argument goes.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor is just as passionate and argues the district already is in the midst of major changes, including some spelled out in the bills.

“That is what we have been doing, but it does not take legislation,” he said.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theavocate.com.