Legislation would cut size of EBR school board, limit power of superintendent

When East Baton Rouge Parish voters go to the polls this fall, they may be voting for just seven School Board members, as opposed to 11.

And once elected, those seven could be overseeing a massive hand-over of their power, as well as the power of the superintendent, to more than 80 school principals.

These proposals are part of two companion pieces of legislation, House Bills 1177 and 1178, filed Tuesday by state Reps. Steve Carter and Dalton Honoré, both of Baton Rouge.

Carter, who is white and a Republican, and Honoré, who is black and a Democrat, were recruited by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which spent recent weeks developing the legislation.

The filing deadline was Tuesday; the session ends June 2.

HB1177 is a top-to-bottom restructuring of the parish school system, the second largest in Louisiana, with about 42,000 students. In addition to giving power to the principals, the bill creates at least three community enrollment zones complete with citizen advisory councils. Carter is lead author of that bill.

HB1178 would remake the 11-member School Board.

Upon the bill’s passage, the school system would have to immediately reapportion. The new board would have six districts, each roughly double the size of its 11 districts.

In addition, voters parishwide — except those in the Baker, Central and Zachary school districts — would elect an at-large representative to the parish School Board.

The new district maps would have to be in place by Aug. 20, when qualifying begins for the Nov. 4 elections. Honoré is the lead author of that bill.

The new seven-member board would take office Jan. 1. The restructuring of the school system would have to be complete by July 1, 2017.

BRAC announced the submission of the legislation Monday, though the actual texts weren’t available publicly until late Tuesday.

“The major aim of the legislation is to push as much autonomy and decision-making as possible to the school and community level and closer to parents,” Carter said in that announcement; he is chairman of the House Education Committee.

“I want to do what’s right for students, parents and families, improving opportunities for achievement across the entire district, and I believe this approach helps to get us there,” Honoré said.

In response to the filing of the bills, Keith Bromery, a spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, released reactions of four groups of principals who met Friday to examine a draft of the bills, which BRAC made available to the school system last week.

Bromery said the document outlining the reactions, which also was sent to BRAC, is not polished but gives a sense of what principals, the central figures in BRAC’s reforms, think of the proposed changes.

“Principals being pulled from primary duties — instruction,” reported Group B.

“Principals are not business managers — not trained to manage and negotiate contracts,” reported Group D.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor announced on March 20 his own answer to the concerns of the chamber, as well as those who support the ongoing petition drive to create a city of St. George by incorporating much of the unincorporated southern part of the parish.

Taylor’s proposals are similar in some ways to the chamber-led legislation, but would not change the powers of the board and the superintendent. His proposals would push much less power to principals.

Both proposals call for citizen-led advisory councils, but they have subtle differences.

Taylor’s councils would “help to inform” decisions made at schools within their region on issues such as principal selections, budgeting and school activities.

HB1177, on the other hand, envisions a more limited role.

Community school councils would define the role of parents and guardians via an “involvement policy,” and would develop a school compact outlining each school’s goal, academic focus and behavioral and disciplinary expectations.

The parents would have no apparent say in selecting principals or developing budgets.

The School Board also is debating whether, on its own, to seek to shrink its size. On March 20, board member Craig Freeman threw out the idea of shrinking to a smaller number, nine, seven or five members, but that idea generated little support that night.

On Thursday, the board is set to discuss whether to rehire Redistricting LLC, which has handled the past few School Board remapping efforts.

The St. George petition drive was prompted by discontent with the parish school system, which manifested in two failed attempts to create a breakaway school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

“We’re just now seeing the bills,” said Lionel Rainey III, a St. George spokesman. “We’ll take time to review each piece of legislation over the next several days and release a statement at the appropriate time.”