EBR School Board, Taylor plan agenda-setting retreat

After a divisive and costly election and just days after taking office, all 11 members of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board sat down on a Saturday in January 2011 for a day- long retreat to get to know each other better and start setting an agenda for their next four years in office.

They haven’t done that since.

Thirty-two months later, these same 11 individuals have finally set a date, Oct. 5, to hold a second retreat. They are meeting from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Suite 1100 of City Plaza 2, 400 Convention St.

“It’s long overdue,” said board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who is organizing the retreat. “Dr. (Bernard) Taylor has been asking for a board retreat since he got here.”

Superintendent Taylor came to Baton Rouge in June 2012. That was 15 months ago.

Taylor said he focused initially on “getting things done,” but wishes he’d pressed harder for a goal-setting retreat with the School Board.

“A retreat sounds like a luxury, given where we are, but getting answers to these questions can really define the work and give a purpose to the work so that it is readily understood by everyone,” he said.

In that first year, Taylor moved quickly, restructuring several low performing schools, launching two new magnet schools, revamping alternative schools, and replacing dozens of school administrators.

More recently, though, his relationship with many board members has progressively soured. Since May, he’s lost or changed course on high profile initiatives he’s pursued involving health insurance for retirees, on how to best train for new educational standards in Louisiana, and changes to student disciplinary personnel.

Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said the board and its new superintendent missed an opportunity in 2012 to align behind an agenda.

“We’re probably a year past when that should have happened,” Knapp said.

Knapp, however, said quick progress is still possible. He noted that the School Board in August approved a 21-page wide-ranging strategic plan, also years in the making. The plan calls for the school system to vault from 51st to a top 10 school district academically by 2020.

Knapp said he’s happy to see board members and Taylor talking about how to implement the plan. Knapp said he particularly likes parts of the plan that call for the expansion of education for young children, better outreach to neighborhoods, and better development of new principals.

“We hope as a group they can find commonality in moving some of these big ideas forward,” he said.

Taylor, who previously spent six years as superintendent in Grand Rapids, Mich., was not the first choice of many board members. He rose to the top after a lengthy, acrimonious search in spring 2012 for a new leader for the school system, home to more than 42,000 students.

Taylor inherited a board that often splits six-to-five on contentious issues, divided usually between newly elected members and incumbents who survived re-election in fall 2010.

Board member Jerry Arbour is a former board president who won reelection in 2010 by just 100 votes. He is now one of seven people running on Oct. 19 for justice of the peace for Ward 3, District 3.

Arbour said an earlier retreat might have allowed Taylor and the board to form a better working relationship and understand Taylor’s sometimes aggressive management style. He wonders if the Oct. 5 retreat is happening too late.

“Right now, maybe people are set in their ways,” Arbour said.

Relations reached their nadir in early August as the School Board gave Taylor a just satisfactory evaluation, awarding him the lowest scores overall of any superintendent in recent memory. He said he has since spoken to every board member personally about his evaluation.

At the same time, the school system also has enjoyed some good news, including learning that 12 F-rated schools improved to Ds, removing them as possible state takeover targets.

Ware-Jackson, who has been one of Taylor’s strongest supporters, has been putting together the agenda for the Oct. 5 retreat, soliciting ideas from board members and Taylor.

She started in late July, but early October was the earliest date people could meet. Even so, it probably won’t attract a full house. Board members Connie Bernard and Tarvald Smith say they have conflicts and don’t think they’ll be able to attend. Arbour said he’ll only be able to stay for part of the day.

Ware-Jackson said she regrets the board has taken so long to get together for a retreat.

“I’m hoping we have a nice ‘Come to Jesus’ kind of meeting,” she said. “It’s something we should have done even before we got sworn in.”

She lumped together many of the problems of Taylor’s first year as communications problems. For instance, a few board members have complained that staff members whom they’ve talked to in the past won’t talk to them any longer.

“They fear speaking out about certain issues,” she said. “Whether that’s a fact I don’t know, that’s an issue we need to take a look at.”

At the same time, Ware-Jackson faults some of her fellow board members for not taking advantage of Taylor’s willingness to meet one-on-one with him ahead of board meetings.

For his part, Taylor said he wants board members to tell him what they want, or, conversely, what they don’t want, the “sacred cows.”

“The thing that I need to improve how I do my job is to have a better definition of their expectations,” he said.

Early agreement about the broad boundaries of what the board wants or doesn’t want would give him confidence to tackle tough, yet must-be-dealt-with issues, including how the board will pay for the priorities it develops, he said.

“I need to hear from them collectively what their reform tolerance level is,” he said.

Taylor said he has personal experience with this. In 2010, Grand Rapids voters replaced a board that was pushing Taylor to make changes faster with one that began applying the brakes.

Board member Craig Freeman said he respects the superintendent’s wishes for clarity, but he said he wants to focus mostly on the topics of greatest concern to him and other board members.

“The superintendent obviously has a place, but my biggest concern is to make sure as a board we’re all on same page,” he said

Freeman said that when he started on the board in 2011, he didn’t see the point of retreats, where you spend a day away from your family. He said he’s changed his tune since.

“I hate this stuff, but we’ve gotta have them,” he said.