Inside Report: Schools overhaul fails again

The latest push to overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish school system died amid a clash of visions on how badly the district needs help.

Backers of the local school system say things are on the upswing.

“EBR is in the middle of the pack,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge. “They are not the worst district in the state, so why keep picking on a school system in the middle of the pack working to improve itself?”

On the other side, officials of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, who were the prime movers behind the latest failed bill, said the community faces a “crisis of confidence” over the local school system that requires urgent action.

Every student deserves a quality education, BRAC President Adam Knapp said in a prepared statement after the legislation was killed. “Sadly, this isn’t available in East Baton Rouge today,” Knapp said.

The proposal in dispute, Senate Bill 636, zipped through a Senate committee, the full Senate and a House committee.

However, it was crushed on the House floor 30-63, another sign of the gulf that separates district backers and critics.

Even the Capital Region Legislative Delegation was badly divided on the bill, with eight in favor and 12 opposed.

The key feature of the bill would give school principals solely in Baton Rouge vast new authority over budgets and other areas.

It would have also set up advisory councils in a bid to improve parental and community involvement.

Supporters of the measure painted the C-rated district as one beset by academic, discipline and other problems.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, chief sponsor of the bill, cited student arrests at Woodlawn High School and others to suggest a school system run amok.

Other backers hinted that part of the resistance stemmed from central office workers fearful that more authority for principals could mean fewer jobs for them.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, a top critic of the bill, said House members viewed the push as a BRAC-backed drive to radically change school operations.

“I think they know what the true intent behind this is,” James said of colleagues. “That is to privatize and make Baton Rouge similar to what is going on in New Orleans.”

Most public schools in New Orleans are charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private boards.

Opponents of White’s bill cited criticism from nearly half of the district’s principals, ministers and “magnet school moms.”

For backers of the overhaul, the problem all along, as it was for similar efforts in 2012 and 2013, was the Louisiana House.

White-sponsored bills to create new school districts in southeast Baton Rouge passed the Senate two years in a row before dying in the House.

The one chance that backers and opponents had to strike a compromise took place in the House Education Committee, which was considering a nearly identical bill by House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.

That measure, House Bill 1177, triggered lengthy public hearings.

It also sparked late-night, behind-the-scenes mediation efforts by state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, to try to reach a solution.

Broadwater, an attorney and a member of the House panel, said the efforts by White and BRAC, who were allies on the issue, were commendable.

The two sides agreed on more than they disagreed, he said.

However, despite multiple negotiating sessions Broadwater concluded that “the time is not right yet” for such an overhaul.

The fact that Carter faced major resistance getting a bill out of his own committee was ominous for supporters.

Carter eventually went with White’s Senate-passed measure, which won approval on a party-line vote before dying on the House floor.

The latest defeat sparked the near annual call for both sides to try to find common ground in the interim.

“This is an opportunity for everyone to come together,” said Bernard Taylor Jr., superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

“If the goal is to improve education let’s start having that conversation,” Taylor said.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.