EBR schools spark another battle

In a late-session showdown, promoters of a bill to improve Baton Rouge public schools insist that empowering principals is the way to go.

Adam Knapp, chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, is one of the chief supporters of the legislation, which faces a crucial hearing on Tuesday.

Knapp said the district suffers from huge perception problems, generally weak student performance and school dissatisfaction, which he said is mostly driving the controversial push to incorporate St. George.

“Those three things suggest there is an urgent need to do something about the public education system in East Baton Rouge,” Knapp said.

But Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, calls the bill radical, irresponsible and “slightly shy of insane.”

“If it is received and considered with any degree of intellectual honesty, the only logical answer is to vote no,” Rutledge said.

The focus of the controversy is Senate Bill 636, which won Senate approval on April 30 on a vote of 23-12.

The key premise behind the plan is that school principals in large school systems need more latitude and that giving them new authority over everything including crafting budgets and overseeing what students learn will make a difference.

The measure faces a vote on Tuesday in the House Education Committee, whose chairman, state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, is handler of the bill.

SB636 would also:

Put principals under two-year management contracts and hold them responsible for meeting goals on key exams, graduation and college acceptance rates.

Try to boost parental and community involvement in public schools by creating advisory councils to hammer out academic, discipline and other expectations.

Allow principals some leeway on how much autonomy they get, especially amid complaints that they would be saddled with business and other duties that would hurt efforts to improve student performance.

The issue is pitting BRAC and other overhaul backers against school district leaders and their allies in the final three weeks of the session, which ends on June 2.

The district, which has about 42,000 students, is rated C, up from a D previously.

“Obviously, they have done a good job of improving, but we feel like there is a long way to go,” Carter said.

“And that the key to student achievement is a team that the principals put together. We feel like this gives the principals a chance to put together an even better team.”

Rutledge said the proposal is aimed at just one school district in Louisiana and would violate the state Constitution’s ban on special legislation.

“I mean this bill is so radical in so many ways; and what is even more tragic is that it is not informed by any individuals who have experience in running a school system,” he said.

Knapp said the bill would give principals precisely the kind of autonomy that East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor says a dozen or so already exercise by stepping outside of traditional practices.

He said that, under current rules, a principal who wants to extend the school day to offer more instruction time might be unable to do so because of transportation schedules.

Under the bill, that principal could have a say in transportation issues and, by doing so, take steps to improve student achievement, Knapp said.

On Friday, BRAC released a policy report that said nearly 39 percent of annual spending by the district is controlled by a “top heavy” central office.

Under the bill, central office operations would be capped at 4.5 percent of the district’s budget, up from 3 percent under the original bill, which is sponsored by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.

Opponents call the 4.5 percent woefully inadequate and say that central office spending in the East Baton Rouge Parish system is lower than other large school districts in Louisiana.

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, also criticized the bill.

“There is not another school district in the country that gives principals the level of autonomy that this bill does,” Davis said.

Knapp said similar moves to boost the authority of principals have taken place in about 40 other sites nationwide.

Backers of the bill say they have made good-faith efforts to work with opponents.

Some district principals who blasted a similar measure debated earlier complained that they do not want the responsibility for their school’s food services, transportation, special education services, health benefits and other tasks.

The legislation would allow, but not require them to do so.

Carter noted that district officials have discussed some changes that mirror what is in the bill.

“But they haven’t pulled the trigger yet,” he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/