Taylor proposes restructuring EBR school system

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- East Baton Rouge Superintendent Bernard Taylor speaks to the Baton Rouge Press Club about improvements made in school scores in this September 2013 Advocate file photo taken at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- East Baton Rouge Superintendent Bernard Taylor speaks to the Baton Rouge Press Club about improvements made in school scores in this September 2013 Advocate file photo taken at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino in Baton Rouge.

Budget decisions would shift to principals of each location

East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor previewed a new funding formula Monday that would give the school system’s 80-plus principals more flexibility to figure out what positions they want at their schools, but also could force them to cut positions they have now.

The shift to school-based budgeting is part of what Taylor is calling “A Blueprint for Transforming Achievement in East Baton Rouge Parish.”

The proposals, months in the making, are meant to answer school system critics by shifting more authority to principals, involving communities in decision-making and expanding the school choices available to parents.

Monday’s meeting, which drew about 40 people, was the School Board’s first in-depth look at these ideas, which Taylor first presented March 20. The meeting was informal, with board members mixing with staff and residents to mull over what Taylor was saying. No votes were taken.

Schools are allotted staff based on budgets set by the School Board and Central Office and state and local rules about class sizes.

Taylor suggests they shift to a formula where the schools receive money based on average teacher salaries across the school system. The funding levels for certain programs, where spending and staffing is set by law, such as special education and gifted classes, would be unchanged.

Taylor said the change to the formula would mean principals will be free to shift their money by creating positions they don’t have now or spending the money on an instructional program.

But they would have to offset those decisions elsewhere.

“If this is what you come up with, you’re going to have to make it work,” Taylor said.

The formula would favor schools with higher levels of student poverty. For instance, schools where 90 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would get the most money.

Board member Barbara Freiberg said using average teacher salary as the gauge would likely dissuade schools from loading up with first-year or with very experienced teachers, making a mix of experience levels more likely.

The decisions this year will be even tougher. The money available districtwide will reflect a likely shortfall of roughly $33 million in the school system’s general operating fund that Taylor is projecting for fiscal year 2014-15.

Consequently, his proposed budget, which he will release in late May, won’t have the list of recommended cuts that he and previous superintendents have typically put together when cuts were necessary.

“This is the first time we’re going directly to the schools in order to do that,” he said.

To make that work, he said, he likely will have to ask the board to institute a “limited” layoff, or what is known as a Reduction In Force.

Most board members appeared OK with the formula.

Board member Vereta Lee said she wants to make sure that schools aren’t forced to hire administrators brought in from outside Baton Rouge.

“I don’t know of any instance where a principal was made to take someone,” Taylor responded, “especially if that person came from the outside.”

Taylor also provided board members with lists of the schools that would be in each of five regions in the school district. Each region, which would have about 8,000 students, would center around “families of schools” where most students could pick from multiple schools, not just the one they’re zoned for.

Board member Randy Lamana, who lives in Pride, said he’s not sure his region would work because the northeast part of the parish is so remote from the rest of the schools.

He suggested Taylor come up with a plan specific to northeast, something Taylor said he’ll look at.

“The schools are very, very underutilized here,” Lamana said. “We’ve got space galore up here.”

Board member Jill Dyason said the southeast region is too big as presented.

“I would like to see that broken into two,” she said. “The elementary school bus rides for some of them are an hour plus.”