Taylor wary of school district overhaul bills

In a pointed swipe at three bills to overhaul his school district, East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor said Thursday his school system faces challenges but has made major strides in the classroom.

“We are not where we want to be, but we are certainly not where we used to be, and I know we are going to get better,” Taylor told the Senate Education Committee.

At one point, he told senators that the East Baton Rouge Parish school system “is not something that should be viewed derisively.”

In an interview afterward, Taylor challenged the backers of three bills to revamp the district — state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central; House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; and Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge; and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber — to show how their plans would aid students in the district in the most need academically.

“I am hoping that Sen. White, Rep. Honoré, Rep. Carter, BRAC, they need to be asked how will these things improve outcomes for the children who have the most academic need, because they have not brought that issue forward,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s 15-minute presentation to the committee was out of the ordinary because the panel was not considering any legislation related to the district.

He was accompanied by Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge.

The same panel has already approved White’s Senate Bill 636, which is aimed at improving student achievement by giving principals sweeping new authority.

A similar proposal, House Bill 1177, is awaiting action in the House Education Committee, which sparked a five-hour negotiating session Wednesday night that included Taylor and others.

Another bill awaiting a House vote, House Bill 1178, would trim the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board from 11 to seven members in a bid to improve efficiency.

The Senate committee would vote on both House bills if they win approval from state representatives.

All three are expected to spark heated floor debates.

In the interview, Taylor dubbed legislation to boost the authority of principals as “autonomy schemes.”

“We have talked about food services and transportation and all of that,” he said. “But we have not talked about what our core business is, which is educating all students to be successful.”

Critics of the district say it has been plagued by academic, discipline and other problems for years and forced parents to seek costly private schools and other options.

Taylor told the committee that a study done by a group that includes urban schools nationwide provided ample data to show that middle-class students in his district perform at comparable or higher levels than their peers elsewhere.

“If you are a middle class student — black, white, Hispanic — you are receiving an education commensurate with what students get in Zachary and Central and in the private and parochial schools,” he said afterward.

“That is not me saying that. That is what the data says.

“Now, with poor children, even though they are making progress, they are not rock bottom, but we have more that we have to do,” he said.

The district, which is rated C by the state, has about 42,000 students.

Taylor said 85 percent to 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, a sign of family poverty.

Those students clearly need more help, he said.

However, Taylor told senators that the bills to revamp the district would either have little impact or could even hurt students academically.

Taylor, who has held his job for less than two years, also told the committee that the district trimmed its list of schools rated as academically unacceptable from 13 to one.

“Did that take a significant amount of work? Yes, it did,” he said.