Taylor acts to shake up school system posts

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor speaks in late January at  aforum at Capitol Elementary School in Baton Rouge. The school is one of several where Taylor is seeking a new principal. Taylor has picked 20 new principals since he started in June 20.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor speaks in late January at aforum at Capitol Elementary School in Baton Rouge. The school is one of several where Taylor is seeking a new principal. Taylor has picked 20 new principals since he started in June 20.

In his first year as superintendent, Bernard Taylor has reorganized top leadership in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, pumping new blood into several Central Office posts while installing new principals in almost a quarter of the schools.

Taylor’s aggressive changes stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, John Dilworth, who was criticized for keeping largely intact the team he inherited.

For the most part, the School Board has stayed out of Taylor’s way thanks in part to a 2012 state law, which is under legal challenge, that gives superintendents like Taylor sole discretion over employee hiring and firing, relegating boards to a strict policy-making role.

Reactions from board members to Taylor’s choices range from anger at what’s happening to administrators they’ve come to know to gratitude at no longer having to deal with personnel issues.

“We were able to cut $1 million from Central Office without lessening our support and our services,” Taylor said. “I’m really happy about that. I think it’s a compliment to our team.”

Much of Taylor’s new blood comes from educators who previously worked with the Recovery School District in New Orleans. The best example is the number two person in the East Baton Rouge system, Michael Haggen, who worked in the RSD in New Orleans from 2006 to 2010.

Haggen, now deputy superintendent for East Baton Rouge, oversees most of the more than 80 schools in the school system. He and fellow newcomer Orlando Ramos, an associate superintendent who worked previously as a school turnaround specialist in the Chicago area, are the faces of many of Taylor’s academic initiatives.

Haggen and Ramos are joined in the top leadership posts by three holdovers, all associate superintendents: Diane Atkins, Herman Brister Sr. and Carlos Sam.

Atkins’ job is almost the same as before, Brister has far fewer responsibilities than he had previously as chief academic officer, and Sam was promoted from his previous job as director of magnet programs. Brister has twice unsuccessfully sought to become superintendent himself, while Sam served as interim superintendent for three months before Taylor arrived.

Outsiders and insiders

Through a public records request, The Advocate obtained documents on personnel changes going back to June 2012, when Taylor moved to Baton Rouge from Grand Rapids, Mich., to run the school system here.

In the past, personnel records like these were released publicly every month at the school board meetings, during which the board could either approve or reject the changes.

Roughly a third of Taylor’s Central Office changes have involved bringing in outsiders. Most of the changes involve Taylor promoting people already working in the school system.

Similarly, 16 of the 20 new school principals Taylor named were promoted from within or had previous ties to the school system. A few other principals are displaced because for their schools are being reconfigured, and their replacements haven’t yet been announced.

At least four of the new hires have previously worked as school administrators in New Orleans; two of them were high school principals in New Orleans at the start of the 2012-13 school year.

Board member Craig Freeman, one of Taylor’s biggest supporters on the board and a proponent of a Central Office shake up, said he’s been happily surprised at Taylor’s mix of outsiders and insiders.

“He and his team have a keen eye for talent,” Freeman said. “It hasn’t been a clean slate of new people. I’m happy that he recognized the talent we have. I’m also happy he has the resources to identify talented leaders from other systems.”

Freeman said Taylor might have done more if not for funding freezes from the state.

Taylor agreed, saying everyone in the school system is underpaid.

“Given what we pay, it’s hard to find people who are willing to relocate,” he said.

“I have colleagues from other parts of the county who could not make the shift because it would be a loss of money for them,” he added.

High schools have had the most leadership change: Taylor has appointed eight new principals, about two thirds of the district’s high schools.

Retirements prompted some of the turnover, including the retirement of longtime Broadmoor High Principal Daryl Glueck.

Taylor, however, has not shied away from making leadership changes at the school level. In the case of Woodlawn High, Taylor tapped Edwards to replace longtime Woodlawn Principal James Newman just a month after school started.

Diane Vickers, a veteran teacher in the Montessori program at Dufrocq Elementary, said she knows many principals who are retiring or thinking of retiring. The pressure to improve test scores and the new job duties, especially those associated with the new teacher evaluation system, are taking a toll, said Vickers, who is a board member with local chapter of the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of two teacher unions in Baton Rouge.

“It’s a lot for a principal to have to go through this, and for some of them it’s so overwhelming,” Vickers said. “They don’t want to have to deal with it anymore.”

Board Vice President Tarvald Smith gives Taylor credit overall for the choices he’s made.

“He walks the walks the walk, and he’s been visible in the community,” Smith said, noting that Taylor inherited a system in turmoil. “I’d like to see Lee Iacocca come in and handle that.”

Smith said any problems he has with Taylor’s choices he’ll address when he evaluates the superintendent later this summer.

“There were people that I think should have stayed,” Smith said, “but, hey, I’m not a micro-manager.”

Board member Vereta Lee is the most critical. Lee said she has received many complaints about new administrators, especially Haggen and Ramos: that they are autocratic, they don’t offer the support their subordinates need to deal with all the changes in public education and that they are unfamiliar with Baton Rouge. She said she brings her complaints to Taylor, who usually tells her the complaints are unfounded.

“We keep getting people in the school system who don’t know anything about our school system,” Lee said.

Taylor recalled one complaint that Lee passed along, and he said it was handled. He added that he really dislikes when employees go outside of the chain of command, rather than giving him and his team the chance to fix problems internally.

Board member Barbara Freiberg said she thinks the school system’s organization can be improved — she doesn’t think schools with state grades of A or B need a supervisor, which is Sam’s duty — but she is impressed with Haggen, calling him “top notch.”

Soon after he began last summer, Haggen met with principals to go over their academic data and set instructional goals. Freiberg said Haggen was demanding in those meetings. At least one principal told her she was crying in her car afterwards.

“But she told me that it’s really made a difference, and her scores improved,” Freiberg said.

New law, new freedom

Taylor has made many of his personnel changes quietly, with little of the fanfare of past superintendents.

He’s had a freer hand than his predecessors because of the new state law, approved weeks before he arrived in June 2012, that gives him and other Louisiana superintendents unfettered authority over hiring and firing.

Before Act 1 took effect on July 1, 2012, school boards in Louisiana gave final approval to changes in personnel. Now, school boards can only set policy, a change good government groups have long pursued.

Barry Erwin, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Council for a Better Louisiana, said CABL for years has heard complaints from superintendents, as well as individual school board members, about rampant micro-management of personnel decisions by certain school board members throughout the state.

“You wouldn’t believe the stories we heard,” Erwin said. “It came down to school board members telling softball coaches who to put into the game.”

Erwin said superintendents need to be able to work free from interference so school boards and the public can judge truly how they do.

“They hire superintendents who are supposed to be accountable for their results, but how can that happen if they are not really responsible for their team?” Erwin asked.

State Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat and a former president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, said removing the board from approving personnel changes didn’t change all that much. Superintendents could still hire whomever they wanted but had to give school boards a chance to register an opinion, she said.

“The superintendent made a recommendation. The board simply voted it up or down,” Smith said.

In March, state District Judge Michael Caldwell ruled Act 1 unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court on Friday told Caldwell to reconsider his ruling. If Act 1 is ultimately ruled unconstitutional, state law reverts to the past. That, among other things, would return to the School Board the final say in hiring and firing school employees.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he will call a special session to re-enact any part of his education agenda thrown out by the courts.

Eye of the beholder

Through the years, individual East Baton Rouge School Board members have been accused of micro-management.

In 2010, Dilworth abruptly resigned 10 months onto the job as superintendent; he quickly changed his mind. He never publicly blamed micro-management by the board, but other school leaders who spoke with him at the time said one reason for Dilworth’s departure was that his personnel choices were getting second-guessed by a few board members.

Current school board members all say they avoid micro-managing, but several say that approving personnel changes had its upsides.

Before the vote, board members, and by extension the general public, would get a list of the personnel changes.

The school system’s Office of Human Resources still gathers those lists but doesn’t release them publicly. A few School Board members said they are not getting nearly as much information as they used to.

Taylor also has discontinued the past practice of presenting to the board his new administrators at board meetings. Consequently, board members say they are often surprised, running into administrators they didn’t know had been hired.

Board member Connie Bernard said in the past she on occasion would go to the superintendent if a concern arose about someone on the list. She said if she felt strongly enough she would ask for stand-alone vote on whether a particular person should be hired. She said the process helped head off or sound the alarm about problems.

“We’re an elected public body,” she said. “We’re accountable to the public.”

Rep. Smith said the monthly votes were akin to a “vote of confidence” and encouraged superintendents to work closely with their boards to ensure the best people were hired.

“I do believe it was a help,” she said. “You at least had an opportunity to look at the person, look at their résumés.”

Taylor said he’s glad the current board trusts him to make personnel decisions, and that school board members should feel blessed to not have to deal with such matters anymore.

“It keeps them from being lobbied to get jobs,” Taylor said.

Freeman is one of those; he doesn’t miss the monthly personnel battles.

“No, I do not wish the board had more say in personnel,” Freeman said. “We should be acting as policy makers. We should provide clear benchmarks for the system and have confidence that Taylor can get us to those benchmarks.”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Sunday, June 2, 2013, to correct the spelling of the first name of Broadmoor High School’s principal. His name is Daryl Glueck.