EBR school supporters bash legislation

Principals face more duties, some say

Opponents of legislation to shift power from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to principals argued Tuesday that the bills are unconstitutional as written, sure to provoke litigation and if enacted would run off already overworked principals.

Speakers at the Tuesday night meeting, which attracted about 80 people to Capitol Middle School, also said the legislation has not been vetted with the general public, takes away the power of voters to change school policy, and seeks to fix a system that, far from being broken, has shown significant improvement in test scores.

One of the four bills, House Bill 1177, is scheduled to be debated Wednesday by the House Education Committee.

On April 16, the committee debated that bill but took no votes.

Stuart Irvine, a Baton Rouge resident who had four children graduate from Baton Rouge public schools, said Tuesday he’s skeptical about the legislation.

“It’s right to ask, ‘What’s the wheel that’s broken that this bill is trying to fix?’ ” Irvine asked. “And who’s benefiting from this?”

Irvine also questioned whether the legislation would do anything to halt the effort to incorporate the city of St. George.

“Nothing in this is going to stop St. George,” state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said.

The discussion was one-sided, with only opponents of the legislation speaking. The meeting was called late Monday night by Carolyn Hill, who represents much of Baton Rouge as the District 8 member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Hill said the legislation, developed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, is the latest in a string of proposals aimed at undermining the parish school system, which has improved from an F- to C-rated district.

“EBR is a district that is making significant strides, so why are they continually beating up on EBR?” Hill said.

Later, she answered her own question.

“They’re after the money,” she told the audience. “Each one of your children is worth $10,000 (a year).”

The idea that East Baton Rouge Parish is being unfairly targeted resonated with Bernadette Wilkinson, a former president of the parish’s parent-teacher organization and the grandmother of three children attending Baton Rouge public schools.

Wilkinson also questioned whether principals can handle the added responsibilities the legislation calls for, including figuring what’s for lunch and overseeing bus service for the school.

“I’ve spoken to several principals and they are like, ‘When am I going to have time to do all this?’ ” Wilkinson said.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor said the parish school system is not a failure at all.

“This is not my opinion. This is not what I feel in my heart,” he said. “This is what the data says.”

He showed the audience the results of a study of fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores. Compared with 21 urban districts as well as Baker, Central and Zachary, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is doing very well with its more affluent students, but is in the middle to the back of the pack for students living in poverty, especially in reading.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said the legislation is riddled with legal and other problems.

He said the legislation as written is applied statewide, yet affects only one school system, East Baton Rouge Parish. He said it violates legal principles in the state Constitution meant to ensure voters have a real say in public schools by electing school board representatives.

Rutledge also questioned why more educators weren’t involved in the formation of the legislation.

“The person with experience should never be at the mercy of people merely with an opinion,” he said.