Legislation advanced to revamp EBR schools

Advocate Photo by WILL SENTELL -- Sherwood Middle School Principal Phyllis Crawford at Senate hearing on Wednesday.
Advocate Photo by WILL SENTELL -- Sherwood Middle School Principal Phyllis Crawford at Senate hearing on Wednesday.

Reopening a volatile topic, a state Senate panel approved a bill Wednesday night that would overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish school system largely by giving principals sweeping new authority.

The measure passed the Senate Education Committee without objection after three hours of often passionate testimony.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and sponsor of the bill, said fast action is needed to improve the district.

“I think we are going to have one chance to fix this,” White said of the district.

“A lot of principals have told me if they had more authority they could run a better ship,” White said later.

But a string of principals who work in the district, administrators and parents denounced the legislation.

Sherwood Middle School Principal Phyllis Crawford, an educator for half a century, said the bill would saddle school leaders with duties they do not want, would hinder efforts to improve student achievement and unfairly singles out just one school district.

“Don’t beat up on East Baton Rouge Parish,” Crawford urged the committee.

The argument reheated disputes of the past two years when White and district officials battled over his plan to create a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

Both efforts failed narrowly and triggered weeks of heated arguments in committee, on the floor and in State Capitol hallways.

The proposal, Senate Bill 636, would give principals new authority in a bid to improve student performance and allow for more parental input through newly created community school councils.

Principals would hammer out school budgets for review by the superintendent, recruit and hire personnel, and oversee curriculum, instruction methods, professional development and other issues.

They also would oversee food services, transportation, custodial, health and a wide range of other services but could seek support from the school district for assistance.

Principals would operate under management contracts of up to five years and be subject to dismissal if they fail to meet performance goals spelled out in the written agreement.

State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, who is co-sponsor of a similar bill in the House, told the committee that the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is not working compared with other systems.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who also is sponsoring a similar plan, said overhaul efforts like White’s plan have been implemented elsewhere. “And it has been very successful,” Carter told the committee.

But East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor denounced the bill.

Taylor said significant changes are already well underway in the district and that White’s bill was written without input from those who would be most affected — principals.

“Please talk to the people who are doing the work, doing it in an exemplary way,” he said.

Pearl Porter, the mother of five graduates of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said the bill would impose too many new duties.

“I know, I know public schools work,” Porter said. “Please don’t put any more (work) on principals.”

White’s bill would create community school councils of parents and others to forge ties between communities and their schools and craft policies to involve parents and guardians in schools, including the establishment of goals, academic focus and disciplinary expectations.

The legislation would set up five enrollment zones approved by the School Board aimed at giving students a wide range of choices.

The bill is backed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which worked with White in coming up with the plan.

Adam Knapp, chief executive officer of the group, said the effort to set up a new city of St. George and other signs signal a public “crisis of confidence” in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Knapp said the bill would move authority from the central office while keeping the school district intact.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish system, said White’s bill should be defeated.

“What it attempts to do is create 88 independent school districts,” Rutledge said, a reference to the number of public schools in the system.

Daniel Edwards, principal of Woodlawn High School, also criticized the bill.

“What highly effective principals were involved in this process? We have a lot of autonomy already,” Edwards said.

White said moments before the committee vote that, before any debate on the Senate floor, he will work with critics on parts of the bill where they have objections.