Proposed changes to EBR schools debated

A panel debating a legislative push to shift power from the Central Office to principals and to reduce the size of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board split Thursday over whether the legislation would improve or hurt public education and whether such matters are best left to the school system itself to decide.

“We’re here supporting change,” said Mike Polito, president of Committee for Progress, a new group of business and community members that supports the legislation.

“We believe it would be good to have more local control.”

Belinda Davis, president of the parents group One Community, One School District, said she opposes the legislation in its current form. For instance, sending money directly to principals has potential problems. She said Southdowns School, which serves young children with significant disabilities, could see its funding cut from $28,000 to $17,000 a year per child under the legislation.

“It ties the district’s hands to direct funds where they are most needed,” Davis said.

The group Leaders With Vision organized Thursday’s luncheon panel, held at Drusilla Place in Baton Rouge.

The four panelists, split between supporters and skeptics, discussed the legislation, which was developed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. Three of the four bills have advanced out of committee and await action on the House and Senate floors.

The chamber and Davis’s group have been allies in past, fighting the petition drive to create the new city of St. George.

“It pains me to be on the opposite side of them in this debate (on the legislation),” Davis said, adding the process is too rushed and needs more public input.

Michael DiResto, a senior vice president with the chamber, said he and others have been talking to a wide variety of people and are open to improving the legislation.

“The timing of this has not been ideal,” he admitted.

DiResto said the chamber has made use of research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, of Seattle, tracking school districts such as Oakland, Calif., that have made great gains with similar changes. He said the legislation got fast-tracked as it became clear St. George supporters would be pushing other legislation, including a bill filed by state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, that would divide the school system into four subdistricts.

“That is not something BRAC is behind,” DiResto said. “We did want to come up with other options.”

Keith Bromery, director of communications for the parish school system, suggested Superintendent Bernard Taylor has plans to do much of what the chamber already wants. Bromery said a presentation earlier Thursday by the Council of Great City Schools shows the school system is making strides.

Bromery also questioned the idea of putting too much more on principals’ plates.

“Principals said they don’t want these additional duties because they have enough right now,” he said.