Board, state reach accord

After months of negotiations, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board reached an agreement Thursday with the state Department of Education that charts the future of 11 low-performing schools in north Baton Rouge and is likely to affect more schools in the future.

It marks the first major agreement between the school and the state agency since the state began in 2008 taking over low-performing schools in Baton Rouge and placing them under the control of the Recovery School District.

The 11 schools are the nucleus of what is collectively being called the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone. The creation of the special zone, which is likely to grow over time, was first floated publicly a year ago by state Superintendent John White.

Seven of the 11 zones schools are operated now by RSD. All seven are former East Baton Rouge Parish schools that operated briefly as charter schools. They are Dalton and Lanier elementary schools; Crestworth, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools; and Capitol and Istrouma high schools.

The state’s plan had been to find charter management groups to take over those seven schools, but the agreement approved on Thursday allows the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to conduct a simultaneous search for charter school groups. A third party evaluator, yet to be determined, would look at charter applicants and help determine which ones would be best suited for the job.

The other four schools joining the Achievement Zone — Capitol, Park and Winbourne elementary schools and Capitol Middle School — will remain under school system’s control until summer 2014. Superintendent Bernard Taylor earlier this month floated a proposal to reconfigure the grades at the schools, with the exception of Winbourne.

“The district is making a concerted effort to collaborate productively with the state,” Taylor said of the agreement.

Reached by phone late Thursday, Patrick Dobard, RSD superintendent, said he wants to reread the document one more time before signing it but is pleased the two sides have been able to find common ground.

“I’m trying to find a way to get us to work more in partnership in a way that works better for families,” Dobard said.

The School Board vote unanimously in favor of the RSD partnership after two hours of often testy debate. Some board members said were unhappy with the final document, particularly that it failed to list all schools that might be affected and the lack of a firm geographic boundary for the Achievement Zone.

Other board members sought additional safeguards for the school system.

Board member Randy Lamana said he didn’t trust the state because state leaders have misled the school system in the past. He said the system has done a much better job in his opinion trying to turn around low-performing schools than the charter schools the state has brought in.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, balked at making changes to the agreement, saying it would jeopardize hours upon hours of work.

“I can’t tell you how much of our time has been consumed, right up until we walked in here,” he said.

Rutledge reminded the board that it has limited leverage because “RSD has these schools now; they’re not ours.”

Rutledge also noted that for the first time the state has agreed to have any new charter schools pay for “legacy costs,” which is the cost of medical coverage for retirees. That is costing the school system about $866 per child now, and about $1.7 million for the more than 2,000 students in the RSD.

Board Vice President Tarvald Smith, long a critic of the RSD, said the agreement is step in the right direction and he hopes it will lead eventually the state to return schools it’s taken over.

“I have probably more reservations than Mr. Lamana about the RSD, but I offer an olive branch so that we can try and work things out.”

John Spain was happy that the two parties finally have reached an agreement.

“What I hope is that it creates an opportunity for the RSD and EBR to restore some trust,” the executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation said.

A year ago, Spain helped form a group called New Schools for Baton Rouge.

The group, in which Spain serves on the board, has been raising money to support schools in the Achievement Zone and has set a fundraising goal of $30 million.

The group has also been courting charter school management groups from around the country to come to Baton Rouge.

“Are there quality charter groups that want to come to Baton Rouge?” Spain asked. “The answer is absolutely, yes.”