Taylor touts investment in EBR schools

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor, left, chats with Samuel London on Wednesday after Taylor spoke about some of the big changes he has initiated since taking over in June and his plans for the future.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor, left, chats with Samuel London on Wednesday after Taylor spoke about some of the big changes he has initiated since taking over in June and his plans for the future.

Speaking to more than 100 school system and community members, East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor on Wednesday heralded a handful of new initiatives that try to balance the calls for good neighborhood schools along with a greater range of educational choices.

“I do want children to go to school close to home, but I want them to feel that that is not a default position,” Taylor said.

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a new school system logo, Taylor spoke for nearly an hour to the audience composed of school system employees and community members active in public education in Baton Rouge.

“We want your help,” he told the crowd at the Instructional Resource Center, next to the School Board Office. “We need your help.”

Taylor’s talk covered a lot of ground, ranging from cheerleading for what he described as an underappreciated asset for Baton Rouge’s diverse and challenged population of children, to implicit, sometimes explicit, criticism of the course taken by the state of Louisiana.

“We don’t need people to come here from far away to show us how it’s done,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a five-mile drive away.”

For instance, Taylor said, increased autonomy for school leaders, a common thread of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform agenda, is neither a new idea nor a cure-all. He said capable school leaders benefit from increased autonomy, but only to a point.

Taylor recalled enjoying back in 1995 a school he led that was experimenting with “site-based management.” He said he did have greater latitude, but was glad Central Office helped lighten his burden.

“I would never want to forgo the benefit of a larger whole,” he said.

One reason for Taylor’s boosterism is that East Baton Rouge Parish voters, except those in Baker, Central and Zachary, on Saturday will have two renewals of property taxes that fund the parish school system to consider. The combined 13.69 mills generate $43.2 million a year.

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t pass this,” Taylor said. “You are investing in children. That’s the whole point of this.”

Taylor spoke at length about the “economic tsunami” the school system has “weathered” in recent years. He noted an estimate by the Louisiana School Board Association that cutbacks and changes in public school funding have left the school system of about 43,000 students more than $100 million short of the revenue it would have otherwise enjoyed.

Taylor also talked Wednesday about several new initiatives the board has undertaken since he took over in June.

Several of the initiatives were approved on March 21 by the School Board and will take effect at the start of the 2013-2014 school year, which starts Aug. 12. They include converting Lee High and Belfair Elementary into dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet schools; turning Mayfair Middle into an elementary school modeled on LSU Lab School; and closing Delmont Elementary and moving two prekindergarten centers onto the campus.

Informational meetings on these new programs have been scheduled for next week at these four schools, all starting at 6 p.m. Lee High and Belfair Elementary meetings are Tuesday, Delmont Elementary’s meeting is Wednesday, and Mayfair Middle’s meeting is next Thursday.

The School Board is planning to take up three more items on the superintendent’s agenda when it meets at 5 p.m. Thursday at the School Board Office, 1050 S. Foster Drive.

Taylor is proposing to move a gifted program from Glen Oaks Park Elementary to Merrydale Elementary School, moving middle school students out of Glen Oaks High to a new location, and converting Claiborne Elementary into a dedicated magnet program, but not until the 2014-15 school year.

But as with some of his earlier proposals, Taylor has been slow to release details in writing. As of Wednesday, Taylor had not posted online advance information on key items. In early 2011, the School Board began a practice of posting online days in advance its meeting “packet,” which is filled with background information on matters before the board.