POSITION: President and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
Knapp started his current job with BRAC in April 2008. Before that, he served as economic development adviser to two Louisiana governors and as deputy director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The chamber is an economic-development organization focusing on a nine-parish area, including East Baton Rouge Parish. Changing public education has been one of its signature initiatives. For instance, BRAC on Thursday announced its opposition to a proposed southeast Baton Rouge school district. BRAC currently represents 1,200 businesses, has a $4 million annual budget and employs about 30 people on its staff.
Why is the chamber so focused on public education?
“In 2008, I met with probably 500 people over the course of about six months. I asked them all essentially the same open-ended question: ‘If we could improve just one thing in public policy that affects our region, what would it be?’ And probably eight out of 10 said ‘education.’ They believe it is the issue that on balance has the greatest effect on our economic future. They want us to lean forward and to take risks in taking positions. As a business community in general, they believe somebody has got to speak out and set expectations, and they want that to be us.”
What do say to those critical of the chamber’s involvement in recent East Baton Rouge Parish superintendent searches and in supporting and opposing candidates for both the school board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education?
“The election process is something that has to happen if you want to try to get good leaders involved. It is directly and materially relevant to driving forward change. We sent out equal mailers if not more mailers on the positive than on the negative. I think the use of our organization’s name was a rhetorical effect as much as reality. It was something used
by opponents to paint people in a corner. It was unfortunate. I didn’t think a lot of it was accurate. It was not our desire or intent to split or divide people.”
What is your view of the proposed Southeast Baton Rouge school district and other possible breakaway school districts?
“If you assume that one is pulling out, you might as well assume that more will pull out after that, and if you don’t understand the legacy costs, it is very difficult to do this without genuinely serious risk to education in East Baton Rouge. We had a study done in ’07 and we have again asked (LSU economist Jim) Richardson to update it, asking this very question: Can you break up East Baton Rouge into multiple districts and would it be financially feasible from a student population and capacity standpoint? And we’ve asked Richardson to update it to look at legacy costs and debt obligations.”
How willing is the chamber to cooperate with newly selected East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor?
“There is an opportunity to unite business leaders in a way they’ve never been united before in asking for help to push in a very aggressive direction. If you lay out a very aggressive vision and a very compelling vision for where you will be in five years, you will bring everybody behind you and you will have as great a chance of getting there as has ever been possible.”
How much time before the window of cooperation closes?
“I think it’s closing. I think you see that with the (independent school district) discussions. There needs to be that call to arms and that aggressive vision, and if this isn’t a call to arms, I don’t know what is.”
Advocate staff writer Charles Lussier