EBR board considers renovations to Polk, Brookstown

Decision delayed on magnet programs

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members gave preliminary approval Thursday to spending $8.1 million this summer to renovate Polk and Brookstown elementary schools in Baton Rouge, but debated without acting on plans to install new magnet programs in those spruced up buildings.

The School Board also recommended Thursday giving almost 2,600 school employees a $300 one-time salary supplement but the money may not get in their pockets until after Christmas. Teachers and other educators received a $500 one-time pay bump earlier this year courtesy of the Legislature.

The board plans to take these matters up at its regular meeting Dec. 19.

The $3.1 million of work at Polk Elementary would pave the way for possibly expanding the popular Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet located a mile to the north. The $5 million in renovations at Brookstown Elementary could lay the groundwork for a future middle school, half a neighborhood, half a magnet school.

The fate of BR FLAIM has vexed the board for years. Its downtown Baton Rouge campus, formerly known as South Boulevard Elementary, can house only the 300 students who go there now and is in need of expensive renovations.

In 2009, parents there successfully persuaded the board to not force them to move into the new Dufrocq Elementary, but board members pointedly told them that they did not intend to spend much money to maintain the school’s dilapidated facility.

On Nov. 7, Taylor proposed moving that program to Polk Elementary. He’s since met with parents and leaders at both schools and, instead, is proposing to keep BR FLAIM intact but expand its popular Spanish program to Polk and add a Mandarin Chinese foreign language immersion program at Polk, as well. The new programs at Polk would start with kindergarten and first grade and add a grade a year until they reach fifth grade.

“We’ve had a significant amount of input from parents and administrators of the facilities involved,” Taylor said.

Taylor is still proposing reassigning Polk’s 227 students to nearby Buchanan and University Terrace Elementary school. However, he is calling for a slow phase-out, starting with next year’s kindergartners. Older students would be allowed to finish at Polk. University Terrace would slowly take over Polk’s current gifted program in a similar, gradual manner, starting with prekindergarten and kindergarten.

Taylor said he wants to expand choice for parents but minimize the impact on neighborhood schools and with the combination of Polk’s small enrollment and proximity to downtown and to LSU makes it good choice.

Benterah C. Morton, who has three children at BR FLAIM, expressed concern about dividing the school between two campuses.

“It would be preferable to have all the resources to go together,” Morton said.

Board member Connie Bernard was the only board member who voted against both the Polk and Brookstown renovations. She complained the moves were haphazard and did not result from good long-term planning.

“I feel like this district is reacting to things and responding to things,” Bernard said.

Taylor argued that these moves involve more planning than Bernard is crediting, but acknowledged that the “sheer number of threats” to the school system faces has made it hard to plan.

“When you have to plan the potential for breakaway (school districts) with every decision you make .. this isn’t normal,” he said.

Putting a middle school at Brookstown could help deal with a concern of the southeast Baton Rouge area, which has residents seeking to form their own district, by returning to north Baton Rouge student reassigned to distant middle schools such as Woodlawn Middle. Those students have been reassigned since state takeovers in 2008 and 2009 of four Baton Rouge middle schools by the state-run Recovery School District.

Taylor is suggesting bringing an estimated 260 of those students back to north Baton Rouge while creating a new magnet program at Brookstown for about 225 students.

It’s not clear how quickly such a program could be started. A charter school, Career Academy, is located there now. It has been seeking to relocate completely to Capitol High where it already leases some space.

The one-time salary supplement for support workers is coming out of $3.2 million that the school system received in new school funding in July. It has already used $1.9 million of that to pay teachers a legislatively required $500 supplement. Taylor is asking for a $300 payout to employees not covered by that legislation, most of them support workers such as bus drivers, but also 426 educators not covered, including principals, assistant principals and curriculum staff. The price tag is about $1 million.

Taylor said $300 is the best he can do.

“You didn’t have enough money to give everyone $500,” he said.