Discipline issues at heart of dispute
Superintendent Bernard Taylor has sparked renewed conflict with a majority of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board who say they disagree with his approach to student discipline as Taylor seeks to reduce the rate of student suspensions.
The issue appears to be a key reason Taylor’s relations with several board members have steadily deteriorated, turning one-time supporters into critics of the combative superintendent.
The deterioration was evident on Thursday when Taylor earned a barely satisfactory overall evaluation of his first year leading the school system, awarded an average score of 2.3 points out of 4.
The same board in 2011 gave John Dilworth, Taylor’s predecessor, a 3.34. In 2007, then-Superintendent Charlotte Placide earned a 3.8. The lowest score of the previous superintendent, Clayton Wilcox, was 3.31.
Taylor opted not to discuss his evaluation with board members Thursday, saying he’ll meet with them one-on-one later.
Several board members sharply criticized Taylor at Thursday’s meeting. saying he wasn’t carrying out their wishes when it came to student discipline and all but accusing him of insubordination.
Over Taylor’s strenuous objections, the board voted 7-4 on Aug. 1 to reinstate 24 positions for time-out room moderators and 17 deans of students, all at middle and high schools.
But as of Thursday, two weeks after the school system’s $400-million-plus general operating budget was approved, the positions still hadn’t been reinstated.
“I’m just confused, and maybe general counsel can explain why if the board did vote on a certain issue we are not required as a system to follow those guidelines?” board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith questioned.
Taylor has pushed to replace the employees, all certified teachers, with cheaper paraprofessionals, supplemented by 31 new “youth advocates,” part of his effort to bring down student suspension rates.
Taylor in particular had objected to staffing middle and high schools with deans of students whose sole job was administering suspensions and other punishments.
Former Superintendent Dilworth began the push to reduce suspension rates, particularly for students with disabilities. He did so in an effort to free the school system from federal “corrective action” for suspending special education students at rates much higher than the state and national average.
Suspension rates have steadily declined at many schools. However, that has led some educators and parents to complain that student behavior is getting worse.
In May, Taylor signaled to principals that he wanted to end the use of deans of students strictly for discipline, saying school administrators should be focused on instruction.
He also said he wanted to eliminate the use of certified teachers as time-out room moderators.
Rather than having one teacher teach all subjects, Taylor wanted principals to develop complicated schedules shuttling other faculty members in and out of time-out rooms, on top of their current duties, to teach students being disciplined.
The change, he said, would save the school system $2 million. That number, however, did not include the 31 new youth advocates he wanted to hire, which would have cost about $1.4 million more a year.
Several board members, already concerned about student misbehavior, questioned Taylor’s moves, saying that schools need seasoned educators who are also strong disciplinarians to keep schools under control.
Taylor, however, continues to press for the change he was unsuccessful at instituting.
On Thursday, Taylor offered several explanations for his inaction in reinstating the positions in middle and high schools.
For example, he said, some deans of students had accepted promotions and he didn’t want to demote them. In other cases, he said, the school already had too many administrators.
On the time-out room moderators, Taylor said he opted to hire full time substitutes rather than place certified teachers in those positions.
“It would be best to have subs in there until we know what the cost is,” Taylor said.
Taylor noted that the school system had a flurry of last-minute resignations and retirements right before the new school year started on Monday, 58 in all, and said he has focused on that problem first.
“My No. 1 priority was to get certified teachers in our core courses,” Taylor said. “If I was wrong to do that, then I stand corrected.”
Taylor also said it was wrong to have certified teachers in middle and high school time-out rooms, but employ non-educators to run them in elementary schools. He said putting certified teachers in elementary school time-out rooms would cost $5 million.
Taylor said the disparity could put the school system in conflict with federal law.
The board members who voted to reinstate those positions, however, were unpersuaded and demanded that he do what they approved.
“I think the vote was taken, and I think it passed,” board member Jill Dyason said. “No matter if you like it or not. It was approved.”