Livingston school chief: Funding is priority

Watson starts Feb. as superintendent

The biggest challenge facing Livingston Parish public schools is to continue moving forward in a time of static state funding and an apparent war on public education, the district’s new superintendent said.

John Watson, 53, took over as interim superintendent of the district Nov. 12 and will become superintendent following Bill Spear’s retirement Feb. 15.

“Times are changing. We’ve got to keep our small-district feel but give every one of our more than 25,000 students the opportunity to do what they would like to do,” Watson told School Board members during his Oct. 30 interview for the post. “Funding is going to be our biggest challenge. ... The other big challenge is just the war on public education that’s going on right now.”

Watson elaborated on those points in an interview Wednesday, saying that in his 30 years in education, he has never seen so many changes, accompanied by so few resources, thrown at public school systems in a single year.

Among those changes is the diversion of state funding to support a voucher program and, beginning next year, online and other course providers.

Livingston Parish schools rank 10th in the state, with only a handful of schools rated C and none rated lower, so the state’s voucher program has not had a major effect on the district thus far, Watson said.

Only two students in the parish are using vouchers this year, one of whom registered with the state using a post office box address, Watson said. The district is challenging the validity of that student’s registration, he said.

“The scary thing is that kindergarten students living at two and a half times the poverty level can apply, regardless of where they live,” he said.

Also troubling is the state’s plan to change the scale for school performance scores, Watson said.

“We’re expecting, as are other districts across the state, to see a drop in some of our letter grades because of that,” he said.

Changes in student assessments also could have a significant effect on school scores, he said.

Another drag on the budget could come via course providers, which will be eligible to receive state Minimum Foundation Program funds beginning in 2013-14.

The Livingston Parish school system has been proactive, however, in applying to become a course provider itself, Watson said.

“Four school systems in the state, including Livingston, are going through that process right now,” he said. “We’re in step three of the approval process.”

Watson said the process has been “rather rigorous” thus far, including a “very thorough interview.”

The district plans to offer a hybrid model of both online and face-to-face course work, Watson said.

State approval for the endeavor would run for three years and allow the district to add courses at any time, he said.

The district will offer the option only to its own students, Watson said.

“We’re not looking to make money on this,” he said. “We’re looking to help our students catch up, be ready to graduate and be ready for the workforce or college.”

Becoming a course provider may also help the district keep student-based state funds within the system. Only students at C, D or F-rated schools will be able to use state funding for courses not already provided by the district, Watson said.

The district has had to make significant cuts during the past few years, twice declaring financial exigency due to static state funding and rising mandated costs such as retirement contributions.

“As long as the current administration is in office, that trend will continue,” Watson said of the lagging funding.

The saving grace for Livingston Parish schools has been a combination of enrollment growth, rising sales tax revenues and strategic budget cuts, he said.

“If we can continue that, we will figure out a way,” he said.

Funding will remain focused on the students, via instruction, building maintenance and transportation, Watson said.

“It’s a matter of trying to keep things as stable in the classrooms as we can without being satisfied with the status quo and always looking to get better,” he said.

Among Watson’s goals for the district are providing more opportunities for students to get college- or career-ready.

Administrators will have to find more ways to offer students certifications toward a career, he said.

The district is also looking to acquire a new data system to help teachers use students’ raw test scores in building their lesson plans for more achievement, Watson said.

“We can get all that information together now, but it’s a huge chore to do it and get it to the teacher,” he said. “There are systems that would allow us to do that in a more efficient way.”

Other goals, such as universal prekindergarten, may be financially out of reach, Watson said.

“If we added pre-k for every 4-year-old next year, it would cost about $9 million to $10 million just to set up,” he said. “We would have to add 70 classrooms, then the teachers and paraprofessionals to fill those classrooms, then the buses and bus drivers to carry all those extra kids to school, more food service personnel, and on and on.”

“We would love to do that, but I don’t think it’s realistic financially at this time,” he said.

Come what may with state mandates and funding, Watson said he has tremendous faith in the district and its future.

“It’s humbling to have this opportunity to serve not only the students, but all the employees who go out there every day and actually do the job of getting these students to school safely, taught, fed and back home,” Watson said. “There is not a better place to work.”