Legislative critics of EBR schools face easier path

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is under legislative fire for the third consecutive year with one key difference: Critics have an easier path to success this time.

Hotly-debated bids to create a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge failed in 2012 and 2013 when backers had to line up super majorities in both chambers — two-thirds in the House and Senate.

The latest effort — overhauling the district mostly by giving principals sweeping new authority — only requires majority votes in the House and Senate and the signature of Gov. Bobby Jindal since it is not a constitutional amendment.

“It will be harder to stop,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, an opponent of the latest effort and those in the two previous years.

The proposal, by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, also has the support of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which opposed the two efforts to create a new school system in southeast Baton Rouge. White said this year’s bill only requires the support of at least 20 members of the 39-member state Senate and 53 of 105 House members.

“Hopefully in the next week or so we can get more consensus on the bill,” White said, one day after the Senate Education Committee approved the measure without objection and sent it to the full Senate.

Under Senate Bill 636, principals in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system would get new authority to craft budgets, hire staff, make their imprint on curriculum and instruction as well as the option to oversee transportation, food services and other areas.

“It completely unties the hands of a principal to run the school,” White said.

Critics contend the bill would saddle principals with time-consuming, business duties without improving student achievement.

“These are day-to-day things that the principals don’t want to be dealing with and they think it is better suited for the central office,” said state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge a critic of White’s plan.

Last year White sponsored a two-bill package to set up a new school district that would extend from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.

The proposed change in state law, which required majority approval, breezed through the Legislature.

The proposed constitutional amendment cleared 10 legislative hurdles before dying in the House for the second consecutive year, well short of the needed two-thirds majority.

The House vote last year was 57-36 in favor, 13 votes short of the minimum needed, in part because of united opposition from Smith, James and the rest of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Asked if White would have an easier path this time James said, “Oh, most definitely.

“This bill I think can be fixed if the chamber agrees to work with the principals,” he added.

In another switch from last year, state Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, is co-sponsor of a bill similar to White’s plan, and urged the Senate Education Committee to approve it.

Honoré told senators that, while people do not like change, elected officials “try to make change, not get in step with everybody else.”

Under the bill, principals would operate under management contracts of up to five years.

They could be fired for failure to meet performance goals spelled out in the agreements.

“Show me a great school and I will probably show you a great principal,” White said.

The proposal also would create community school councils of parents and others to forge ties between communities and their schools.

Five enrollment zones would be authorized by the School Board aimed at giving students a wide range of choices.

BRAC Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp said the bill is needed to help restore confidence in the school system for parents, business leaders and others.

Disputing criticism, Knapp said his group collected opinions from principals, teachers and community leaders while the bill was prepared and will continue to do so as it winds through the Legislature.

“We called for anybody and everybody to get input,” he said.

Smith said the only principal consulted was Sherry Brock, principal of highly regarded Westdale Middle School.

Linda Johnson, a former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education whose district included some EBR schools, said the district never gets credit for the positive, including Blue Ribbon and magnet schools and gains in its annual school performance scores.

“So to me they are trying to move the bar,” said Johnson, who testified against White’s bill.

The district carries a C letter grade rating from the state.

Critics also said that, if giving principals broad new authority paid big dividends, state education leaders would have trumpeted the results of pilot projects launched in seven districts in 2011.

Terrebonne Parish School Superintendent Phillip Martin, whose district was one of the seven, said the effort to expand the authority of principals got mixed results.

“Our principals are hard working, dedicated and they are like . . . do not put anything on my plate that I don’t already have,” Martin said.