Protesters object to planned closure of Istrouma High

Seven Baton Rouge officeholders gathered Thursday morning at Capitol High School to protest being left out of the decision-making process on the planned closure of Istrouma High for at least a year and the special favors they say charter schools are getting at the expense of traditional public schools.

“We have not been given the honor due when it comes to making decisions and to be at the table,” state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said.

State Reps. James, Regina Barrow, Pat Smith and Alfred Williams, all of Baton Rouge; Carolyn Hill, BESE District 2 member; C. Denise Marcelle, Metro Council member; and Tarvald Smith, East Baton Rouge Parish School Board vice president, stood together in the Capitol High library for the news conference. With them were former School Board members Jacqueline Mims and W.T. Winfield.

Nine days ago, leaders of the state-run Recovery School District stood in the library of another Baton Rouge school, Lanier Elementary, to announce a series of changes at RSD schools, clearing the way for new charter schools over the next two years.

Three state-run middle schools and two high schools, Capitol and Istrouma, are being consolidated. Istrouma High and Glen Oaks Middle schools won’t have students next year, but will serve as administrative offices for yet-to-be named charter schools scheduled to open in fall 2015.

The closure of Istrouma High has sparked protests from alumni of that school, founded in 1917, including an online petition and a rally held late Monday at the school.

Reached by phone, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said he had heard criticism from individual officeholders about the lack of prior notice for last week’s decision, but he said RSD held a series of parent and other community meetings to which leaders were invited. In the end, he said, not much changed.

“The message we delivered 18 months ago was the same message we delivered a week ago,” Dobard said.

Hill, James and Pat Smith did most of the talking at the news conference.

James said he was informed two hours prior to the Oct. 29 announcement about the changes in RSD schools and was told he’s difficult to get ahold of, which he said he found dubious.

“They were able to find me quickly last session when they wanted to talk to me about a bill they didn’t like,” James said.

“As the elected representatives of this community, we always seem to be at the end of the food chain of information,” Pat Smith said.

Hill and Smith talked at length about various federal grants they claim charter schools and schools associated with RSD are getting a disproportionate share of.

“It raises red flags for me, because I think that all children deserve an equitable playing field,” Hill said.

Smith said she was troubled by RSD’s hiring outside charter school providers while rejecting local vendors such as J.K. Haynes, which has run a successful charter school in Baton Rouge for the past 16 years.

She also criticized RSD’s reluctance to return schools to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, even though the school district had a dozen schools improve this past year from academically unacceptable status.

Dobard said it’s possible for RSD schools to return to the local school district, but that’s years away.

“Talking about return, we’ll look at that once schools have met the targets and then they’ll decide whether they want to remain (with RSD),” he said.

Dobard said he didn’t get to hear all the criticism leveled Thursday, but said he welcomes it.

“It focuses attention on hopefully what’s most important: that’s creating better schools in north Baton Rouge,” he said. “We’ve had this culture of low academic expectations for well over a decade.”