Education law changes posing problems for state’s school districts

Changes in education laws that took effect in 2012 created unintended consequences, and school districts across the state are still trying to understand how to deal with them, said Nathan Roberts, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette education professor.

Roberts led a workshop Saturday for Lafayette Parish School System employees on Act 1, a law enacted in July 2012 that changed several aspects of education law, including teacher pay and evaluation; superintendent contracts; and transferring final approval of hiring and firing decisions from school boards to superintendents.

The law has been challenged in the courts, and last week, a state judge declared it unconstitutional because several topics were included on one bill. It’s the second time the law has been struck down in less than a year. Gov. Bobby Jindal has said the law remains in effect and the state plans to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Roberts, who is a former assistant district attorney and former school board attorney, told the group he wasn’t there to offer legal advice on the law but to share with them the framework of the law and its impact on existing laws.

“The hardest part is how to implement it and know what’s there and how to put in the right policies and procedures to be fair,” Roberts said during an interview Saturday.

Changes in the law have created a tug of war between board members and Superintendent Pat Cooper over some personnel decisions.

Cooper requested a workshop on the law changes but pulled the request from the board’s December agenda and planned the Saturday workshop for school employees.

He extended an invitation to board members and three showed up: board President Shelton Cobb, Vice President Hunter Beasley and Kermit Bouillion. About 80 school employees, the majority school or district-level administrators, attended.

The workshop’s purpose wasn’t to draw a line in the sand between what the superintendent can do and what the board can do, Cooper said before Roberts began his presentation.

“It’s not deciding who gets what,” Cooper said. “It’s deciding how do we take this new world we live in and work together. How do we lessen the strife and try to make this new law work?”

Roberts said the intent of the law was to empower superintendents and principals to make hiring decisions and to ensure the effectiveness of classroom teachers.

He said the catalyst for the law changes were likely based on real and perceived gripes brought to legislators’ attention — board micro-management, the difficulty and time involved in getting rid of ineffective teachers, and business community’s concerns that teachers are being paid based on years of experience rather than their performance.

Roberts said previously in other school districts across the state, board members were heavily involved in the interview and selection process for hiring new teachers or other employees.

“That’s what the legislature was trying to get away from. They said, ‘Superintendent, you’re the expert. You need to implement the plan to get your district up from a C, D or F school district,’ ” Roberts said.

But the change specific to giving the superintendent the final say on hiring decisions led to an unintended consequence in that it put the superintendent and board at odds, said Roberts, who directs the university’s doctoral program in educational foundations and leadership ,and teaches aspiring superintendents and principals school law.

“If the board doesn’t agree with it, there’s nothing they can do about it,” Roberts said. “That option doesn’t exist. If I was a new school board member, it wouldn’t mean anything to me, but I may have a problem if I’m an old board member.”

Unintended consequences of the law specific to changes in how teachers are evaluated and compensated has been an increase in retirements and resignations, Roberts said.

It’s also impacting the future generation of teachers evidenced in fewer college students pursuing education studies, he said.

“The scarier thing is that when (student teachers) go observe, teachers are telling them you don’t want to be a teacher, go do something else. That’s not a good sign,” Roberts said.

During the presentation, employees asked Roberts about issues related to requirements of reduction in force (RIF) policies and the stipulation that seniority or tenure not be used as the primary criteria for RIF.

“The best time to create a (reduction in force) policy is when you don’t need one,” Roberts advised. “Lafayette is doing well. It looks like your numbers are up. ... Hopefully, you don’t have to RIF, but you need something in place that follows the criteria.”

There are grievance procedures in place for employees who disagree with any reduction in force decisions.

The implications of Act 1 will be discussed during a public forum on Tuesday with a panel featuring Roberts; Patrice Pujol, president of the Louisiana Superintendents Association; Scott Richard, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association; and Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators. The forum begins at 6 p.m. at AOC Community Media.