An LSU economics professor and a visiting researcher on Thursday urged the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to begin to start figuring out how to giving dissatisfied communities more autonomy or risk having more break away and form their own districts.
“If the School Board does nothing, we have a community that will ask for their independence, and they are likely to get it,” said Jim Richardson, alumni professor of economics at LSU.
Richardson and Roy Heidelberg, a visiting researcher at LSU, spoke to a small luncheon crowd at Juban’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge organized by the group Volunteers In Public Schools.
They suggested community leaders start a grassroots process to figure out which neighborhoods should be grouped together, how these districts can gain autonomy, how to divide resources and come up with a new “unitary” financial system that would benefit the entire parish.
“This is not a plan,” Heidelberg said. “We’re sketching out a process.”
Neither Superintendent Bernard Taylor or School Board President Barbara Freiberg were at the luncheon, but three other School Board members attended. Richardson and Heidelberg said they had talked to Freiberg, but not as yet to Taylor.
School Board member Evelyn Ware Jackson said Taylor has some ideas on how to address the issue of breakaway school districts that are similar to those offered by Richardson and Heidelberg.
Board member Jill Dyason, who represents much of the southeastern area, which came close to getting a new district earlier this year, said her constituents don’t trust school leaders without a detailed plan.
“The details are critical,” she said.
In August, the two academics released a 23-page study of the financial implications of creating new breakaway school districts in East Baton Rouge Parish that was paid for by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Read the BRAC School District Restructuring and Reform Report .
The study found that, without some sort of cost-sharing arrangement, the new districts proposed in southeast and south Baton Rouge would take with them tax base and revenue and reduce the resources to schools in Baton Rouge’s poorest neighborhoods, leading to greater inequity.
In particular, they raised concerns that “legacy costs,” mostly health care benefits for East Baton Rouge school system retirees, are growing and the system will have trouble paying for them from a reduced tax base. The legacy costs, currently about $866 per student, would grow to $1,231 per student if new districts were set up in both the southeastern and southern portions of the parish, the study says.
What’s left of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system would likely have to cut back on services for the toughest-to-teach children and the new school districts would likely have to raise taxes over time to keep up, the report concluded.
On Thursday, Richardson and Heidelberg went further, urging that a community-driven process get under way now. They said they were pushing for a process on their own, that BRAC and BRAF are not behind their efforts, but said leaders of those organizations share some of their concerns about the status quo.
Richardson said East Baton Rouge Parish and the School Board as a whole should come up with a decentralization plan now rather than going through another divisive legislative fight and public referendum.
Heidelberg said simply allowing more school districts to break away in the manner that Baker, Central and Zachary broke away is “morally reprehensible” because of the inequality that will be exacerbated.
He said it would be better to give communities more autonomy but still retain a “unitary” financial system where the entire community pays into a pool and money is distributed through a formula.
Richardson and Heidelberg fielded several critical questions after their presentation.
Hannah Wilems, a member of the group One Community, One School District, which opposed the proposed southeast breakaway, wondered if having several new autonomous districts would mean spending more on administrators and bureaucracy.
“What I hear is more red tape,” Wilems said.
Heidelberg said moving decision-making into communities could actually lessen perceptions of “red tape.”