EBR school bills could put damper on St. George efforts

After two years of unsuccessful attempts to create a new school system in the southeastern portion of East Baton Rouge Parish, new school reform efforts are headed to the state legislature this year.

The proposed reforms, some speculate, could stifle interest in an effort to incorporate the city of St. George in order to create a separate breakaway school district.

The state Legislature is considering at least two proposals targeting broad structural changes in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, has proposed a bill that would divide the school system into four subdistricts with deputy superintendents.

White sponsored the unsuccessful bills in 2012 and 2013 that would have gone further, creating a breakaway school system in southeast Baton Rouge independent of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. Critics argued such a move would leave the Baton Rouge system with less per-student funding in addition to other unfair financial debts.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber was a staunch opponent of White’s proposals. However, the organization announced this month that it is developing its own legislation to create more school- and community-level control and to shrink the power of the School Board and superintendent.

The deadline to file a bill is April 1, and BRAC does not yet have a draft of the legislation, nor a sponsor.

BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp said the agency considers the city of St. George a serious threat to the financial stability of the parish and thinks satisfying the incorporation supporters’ desire for more local control of schools could quell interest in forming a new city.

“Our effort is designed to stand alongside parents’ educational choices and provide them with something different than what they are being provided today, without destroying the fabric of the city-parish and without doing harm to a portion of our school system,” Knapp said.

Control a common theme

Local control of schools is a concept most education advocates agree on, Knapp said. However, he said, BRAC believes it can be accomplished without bifurcating the parish into separate school systems or into subdistricts, as White has proposed.

“We’re hearing a lot of commonality in some of these principles, so if everyone can come to a consensus and shed their personal and group animosities, we can get what people want out of the school system,” Knapp said.

White, on the other hand, said his bill has nothing to do with the St. George effort.

“They are two entirely separate issues; one of them is a school issue and one is an incorporation issue,” he said.

White said he filed his bill in response to recommendations made in previous years that took issue with the proposed breakaway system’s impact on legacy costs such as retirement costs and bond indebtedness.

Even if his bill passes, White said, residents of the proposed city of St. George could continue their push for an independent school system. He also said many of the supporters have joined the cause because of concerns about how tax dollars are spent in East Baton Rouge Parish.

“The school issue is their primary issue,” White said, “But they have grievances, legitimate grievances, about the parish.”

Proposals not enough?

Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Joel Boé, whose district is within the St. George proposed boundaries, said he thinks meaningful school reform could lessen interest in creating a new city.

“Without a doubt, it could slow it down or even stop it, considering the original intent started as education reform,” Boé said. “The city is a mechanism to get control of the schools, and had they been given a school district two years ago, the city of St. George would be a moot point.”

But Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, whose district is also within St. George, said he doesn’t think any of the legislative proposals will go far enough to satisfy St. George supporters.

“Everything I’ve seen still maintains that the district is part of the (East Baton Rouge Parish) school system,” he said. “I believe a good portion of constituents think that system is broken and cannot be fixed.”

Loupe said the incorporation effort picked up additional steam from residents who wanted to be an independent city for reasons beyond creating a new school system.

He also said there’s no indication that the incorporation movement is slowing down.

“They’re still out most weekends, and one of the stops is close to my house,” he said. “People are always pulling over and signing the petitions.”

St. George organizers need about 18,000 signatures on a petition in order to put the city proposal on a ballot. They stopped disclosing their signature counts in January but said they intended to have the proposal for a November election.

Boé said he doesn’t think his district has been slighted by the city in terms of services. He noted that the majority of road projects under the Green Light Plan have occurred in the southern part of the parish.

“I don’t see the disparity,” Boé said. “Sometimes they use downtown as an example, but that’s money that’s generated through hotel tax revenue and is dedicated to downtown. It couldn’t be used for District 9 improvements.”

St. George incorporation leaders declined interview requests.

Committee finds more issues

However, in a written statement, the Committee of St. George said that while education reform continues to be its top priority, the movement has grown to address other issues with the city-parish government.

“During this process we have uncovered significant issues with how the city-parish government treats residents in the unincorporated parts of the parish. That’s out in the open now. People are actually looking at the budget,” the statement said. “The city-parish government will have to convince the residents of the proposed city of St. George that they are going to rectify those issues. We will continue our fight to put this on the ballot in November and let the people decide.”

The statement added, “At the end of the day it’s the people who are in charge. Not a small group of politicians.”

Mayor waiting

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the Mayor’s Office has not extensively reviewed any of the proposed bills or plans but would not support any legislation that is harmful to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system or to students.

“The mayor thinks the incorporation is not in the best interest of the parish, and it’s always been his hope that the people incorporating the parish would put their energies toward improvements to the education system,” Daniel said. “There are some good ideas out there. We’re just waiting to see what’s going to be embraced and move forward.”

Students live in St. George

East Baton Rouge Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor said those supporting a breakaway are ignoring the fact that the school system has been improving for years.

He said supporters of the city and the independent school system say they want local control and neighborhood schools, which is exactly what they have. Taylor said 86 percent of the students that attend public schools in the St. George boundaries live in the school attendance zones.

And principals already have autonomy, he said, because they hire their own teachers. State law prevents them from being able to fire tenured teachers.

“When people talk about local control, I need to know: Local control over what?” Taylor said. “Eighty-five percent of school budgets are salary and benefits, so there’s only a small amount of money that schools control.”

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, said she thinks the city of St. George effort is losing steam and could be negated entirely by the city-parish’s efforts to annex additional parts of the unincorporated parish.

She said BRAC should not use the threat of forming a new city “as a justification to enact hastily conceived plans for our school system.”

Davis has previously criticized both White and BRAC for developing school proposals behind closed doors, without input from parents.

“Balancing the desire for local control, democratic governance of our school board, and the well-being of the only system that is responsible for educating all children regardless of race, socioeconomic background and disability, requires careful planning and an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our schools,” she said in an email.