Our Views: With renewals, breathing room

The recent renewal of two taxes was good news for the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system, but the system still faces formidable obstacles, including some pretty big financial challenges. Those hurdles underscore the urgency of engaging residents in addressing the school system’s challenges, which is something that Superintendent Bernard Taylor has been trying to do.

The proposed renewals on the April 6 ballot easily won approval, meaning that the school system will continue to get about $43.3 million a year — about 8 percent of all school system revenue and 11 percent of the money that funds its general operations.

The renewal of the taxes saved an already grim financial situation for the school system from getting even worse. Even with the tax renewals, the system is already facing budget cuts for the next three fiscal years, with $30 million in cuts projected for this fiscal year and $15 million in reductions projected for 2014-2015. State budget problems have limited state funding for public education in recent years, and local school districts are feeling the pinch.

Meanwhile, advocates of a separate school district in southeast Baton Rouge are trying again in the current session of the Legislature to get approval for placing a separate school district measure on the statewide ballot. A similar bill narrowly failed in last year’s legislative session. If that breakaway district becomes a reality, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system would face another reduction in resources.

Taylor is trying to persuade local residents to stay in the system. He’s also attempting to build broader community support for the system, staging a series of community forums to unroll his ideas for reform. Among the changes recently approved by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system are plans to convert Lee High and Belfair Elementary into magnet schools — campuses with specialized programs designed to attract highly motivated students from across the district. The board also approved plans to turn Mayfair Elementary into an elementary school modeled on the LSU Lab School, and closing Delmont Elementary and moving two pre-K programs onto its campus.

More proposed changes are on the way.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School system is a mixed bag, with some schools nationally recognized as models of excellence and others designated as failing schools by the state.

Taylor has his work cut out for him in building stronger public support for the system. The recent renewal of two taxes for the system gives him a little bit of breathing room, but the meager turnout for the election was telling, with only 6 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot. That doesn’t suggest the kind of public involvement that Taylor will need in advancing school reform.