EBR schools overhaul legislation clears Senate

The state Senate gave lopsided approval Wednesday to a bill that would remake the East Baton Rouge Parish school system by giving principals sweeping new authority.

The vote was 23-12.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, and bill sponsor, urged colleagues to approve the measure, which is heatedly opposed by district leaders.

“This is an attempt to repair a big school system that has problems,” White said.

He said 40 percent of students in the district attend failing schools.

The proposal, Senate Bill 636, next faces action in the House.

The vote followed days of closed-door negotiations over the final draft of the bill.

Shortly before the vote, White and Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, could be seen going over details of the legislation in a bid to ease concerns of Broome and other opponents.

“As you know this has certainly been a work in progress,” Broome told the Senate. “It is still a work in progress.”

Broome later voted “no” on the bill.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, urged senators to reject the measure.

Dorsey-Colomb said the plan would run afoul of a prohibition in the state constitution on the Legislature passing special laws, a reference to the fact that the bill would only apply to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

“So members, I suggest that you look at that very carefully,” she said.

The premise of the bill is that, in large school systems such as East Baton Rouge Parish, principals face obstacles that prevent them from making administrative decisions that most affect their schools.

The bill would designate principals as the chief executive officer of the school.

They would be responsible for proposing school budgets, personnel management, hiring and a wide range of other duties.

Principals also would operate under management contracts, and they could be dismissed for failing to meet academic and other goals.

Backers say that, by giving principals new authority, student academic performance will improve in a more innovative, autonomous classroom environment.

Opponents, including nearly two dozen principals in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, have argued the changes would saddle them with food service, transportation and other mundane duties that would trim time they have to aid students.

White’s initial proposal set aside about $12 million for administrative costs, which district leaders said was woefully low.

That was raised to nearly $20 million through a Senate floor amendment.

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

White’s bill would create community school councils of parents and others to forge ties between communities and their schools.

Under another Broome amendment, parents would make up 60 percent of those panels’ membership.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, is the sponsor of a plan nearly identical to White’s measure.

That proposal, House Bill 1177, was set for a vote in the House Education Committee Wednesday night, the third time that the measure has been on the panel’s agenda.

However, Carter announced that his bill would not be debated.

That means White’s bill will be the legislation debated in the House in the final four weeks of the session.

Earlier in the day leaders of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which backs the White and Carter measures, issued a list of 50 regional business and community leaders who back the bill, including East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, former LSU basketball star Collis Temple Jr., now executive director of Harmony Center Inc., and two members of the Metro Council, Buddy Amoroso and Ryan Heck.

“The East Baton Rouge Parish school system has taken steps in the right direction but continues to underperform,” said BRAC President and Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp in a prepared statement.

“Now is the time to put these changes in place to set the system up for success,” said Knapp, who has been heavily involved in pushing the bill.

Meanwhile, officials of two other groups criticized Carter’s bill, and in essence White’s too.

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, said after the Senate vote that, despite small changes in White’s bill, her group opposes it.

Leaders of the Baton Rouge Association for Gifted and Talented Students also criticized the proposed overhaul.

“We believe that BRAC should withdraw this legislation and instead work with education partners to develop sound community-supported solutions that address actual issues our school system faces,” the group said in a prepared statement.

The debate in both chambers is reminiscent of heated arguments in 2012 and 2013 over White’s push to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

However, the bills this time only require majority approval, not the two-thirds requirement of the breakaway plans.