EBR overhaul bill wins approval of House panel

A hotly debated bill that would overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish school system by giving principals broad new powers moved within one step of final approval Tuesday.

On a party-line vote, the House Education Committee approved it 10-6, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

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

It has already won Senate approval.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, sponsor of the plan, made an impassioned plea for the bill in closing arguments to the committee.

“The folks in the parish don’t think we have a good school system,” White said. “If we don’t change anything, then we will do no better.”

The bill, a priority of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, also sparked unusual public testimony from East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III and Metro Council Mayor President Pro Tem Chandler Loupe.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said numerous principals have criticized the measure.

“Not only do they not want this,” Rutledge told the committee. “They don’t have the time or the skill set.”

SB636 would give school principals new authority by allowing them to craft budgets, hire and fire personnel, and oversee instruction and curriculum.

They would also have the option of running their school’s food services, transportation, special education and other services.

In exchange for the new autonomy, principals would operate under two-year management contracts, and they would be responsible for meeting academic goals on student test scores, graduation and college acceptance rates.

Amanda Wells, a lawyer and the mother of three small children, praised the bill.

“There are great schools following this model,” Wells said. “Their principals do have very strong autonomy.”

Gautreaux praised the measure as one that would improve community spirit, and help keep children in school where the average education level for parish inmates is seventh grade.

“There is definitely, definitely a correlation between education and criminal activity in this parish,” he said.

White said one reason for angst about the district is violence in public schools.

He said Woodlawn High School alone was the subject of 128 calls to law enforcement officials in 2013 and 54 arrests.

Opponents said the bill, which is aimed at the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, is unconstitutional because it applies to one school district.

“The bills are legally deficient,” said Evan Alvarez, an attorney for the local School Board.

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, said that, despite criticism to the contrary, the district spends $300 less per student in central office expenditures than the average school district in Louisiana.

“You are passing a bill that is an unwise bill,” Davis said.

Loupe, who represents District 3 in the southeast part of the parish, said he receives 200-300 emails per day on education.

He said many of his constituents believe the East Baton Rouge Parish school board “is not supporting them.”

“I came here today to speak on their behalf,” Loupe said. “I support the bill.”

Moore compared giving principals new authority to his office, where different sections are held responsible for different courts “to make sure we are doing all we can do.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite and a committee member, questioned whether principals could opt out of being in charge of transportation, food services and other contracts, as backers say.

“The bill as created is going to invite absolute chaos,” Edwards said.

White’s proposal would try to boost parental involvement in public schools by creating advisory councils to hammer out learning, discipline and other goals.

It would also set up five enrollment zones designed to give students school options.

The bill would initially apply to only top-rated principals. It would be fully effective in 2017.

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

VOTING FOR GIVING PRINCIPALS NEW AUTHORITY (10): state Reps. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Henry Burns, R-Haughton; Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette; Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville; Barry Ivey, R-Central; Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette; Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston; and Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City

VOTING AGAINST SB636 (6): state Reps. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; John Bel Edwards, D-Amite; Patrick Jefferson, D-Arcadia; Ed Price, D-Gonzales; Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge; and Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge

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