BRAC: More community control of EBR schools

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS --  The exterior of the East Baton Rouge School Board offices building on South Foster Drive. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- The exterior of the East Baton Rouge School Board offices building on South Foster Drive.

Group: Community needs increased control of East Baton Rouge Parish schools

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber is developing legislation to restructure the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to create more school and community level control and at the same time shrink the power of the School Board and superintendent.

BRAC announced the move Friday, a week after Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, filed legislation that would do similar things but also would divide the system into four subdistricts.

“We support a unified EBR public education system, with measures in place to enact local control and empower those who want to see better options for the children in their communities,” Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of BRAC, said in a statement. “The new direction should increase school autonomy through greater empowerment of principals, parents, and neighborhoods in how their schools operate.”

The Legislature is beginning its regular session at noon Monday.

BRAC’s statement outlines nine principles for any school reform legislation, ranging from greater local control at the school and community level to maintaining unity and financial cohesion of the current school system.

In an interview, Knapp said the chamber has been talking with members of the local legislative delegation but has not settled on either the wording or a sponsor for this proposed legislation. He said he’d like those with thoughts on this issue to send them to the chamber via email to communityschools@brac.org.

After White’s bill was filed a week ago, Superintendent Bernard Taylor immediately went on the attack, describing it as a return of “Jim Crow” and as “sad beyond words.”

On Friday, after the chamber announcement, Taylor held his fire, instead releasing a statement saying the school system would wait to see the wording of the chamber-proposed legislation before commenting.

Board President David Tatman spoke in measured tones about both White’s bill and what the chamber has proposed.

“There’s a lot of questions if you read (White’s) legislation, but it creates a dialogue about creating community schools, and having a dialogue is always a good thing,” Tatman said.

BRAC has opposed previous, unsuccessful legislation by White aimed at creating a breakaway school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

Knapp said White’s latest bill, SB484, is a step in the right direction and that he spoke with White earlier this week, but his organization is pursuing its own legislation instead.

“There must be a different answer than the answers that have been proposed so far,” Knapp said.

“We don’t think, respectfully, that subdistricts are a better answer than the current system,” he added.

He said subdistricts are too rigid a construction and they add too much financial inefficiency. In particular, adding four deputy superintendents to oversee each proposed subdistrict is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, he said.

BRAC has for months raised questions about a related petition drive to create a city of St. George by incorporating much of unincorporated East Baton Rouge Parish.

On Friday, he announced his organization is openly opposing the St. George effort, a stance the chamber stopped short of until now. Problems in education sparked the St. George incorporation to begin with, but the debate has drifted away from education since.

“The purpose of (our) opposition is to refocus people on the education question,” Knapp said.

The Committee To Incorporate the City of St. George responded in a statement Friday that applauds the chamber for seeing that “immediate and meaningful action” is necessary to fix the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

“We hope that business community takes this opportunity to get behind the concept of locally controlled, independent community school district and supports Sen. White and other area legislator’s efforts to affect change throughout the entire parish,” according the statement.

The committee, however, maintains that it will continue its St. George petition drive, with the target of having the matter on the ballot in November.

Lionel Rainey III, a spokesman for the group, clarified that the committee has not decided where it stands on White’s subdistrict legislation and did not participate in its writing. He said they are waiting to see what amendments are added before taking a stance.

“We don’t know what’s real or what’s not,” Rainey said.

The chamber has pressed for years for changes in the school system, including funding much of a 2010 campaign to oust most of the incumbent School Board members, but Knapp said it’s been too susceptible to institutional resistance.

He said up until as recently as a week ago he had hope the school system might make substantive changes on its own. But now, the chamber is seeking help from the Legislature instead.

“Our sense is that it’s going to have to come from legislation,” he said.

Tatman, who was endorsed by the chamber in 2010, said the School Board understands the gravity of the situation but also said the system doesn’t get enough credit for the strides it has made, including improving from a D to a C-rated school district and having 12 schools improve their way out of F status this year.

Tatman said he expects the school system will respond with its own reform ideas and will discuss the matter at its regular March 20 meeting.

“There’s more to come,” he said.