Making prekindergarten universal, upgrading air conditioning in older buildings, and balancing neighborhood and magnet schools were among the topics the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board discussed at a day-long retreat Saturday.
The retreat, held on the 12th floor of a downtown office building, was only the second the School Board has held since taking office in January 2011. It was the first since Bernard Taylor replaced John Dilworth as superintendent in June 2012.
As the retreat wrapped up, Taylor urged the board to do it again.
“We’ve talked about a lot of things but it’s not clear to me what you want as board,” he said. “So, we’re going to have to get back together.”
Relations between Taylor and the board have been deteriorating of late and appeared to reach a nadir over the summer. Although disagreements were common, Saturday’s discussion was relatively cordial.
“Our meetings are so formal,” board member Craig Freeman said. “I appreciated the conversation. We don’t often get the chance to just have a conversation.”
“We meet, but this is the first time we’ve talked,” Taylor said.
The board left the conference room of Phelps Dunbar law firm with a long to-do list of things the board plans to take up at a future retreat, yet to be scheduled.
The board was supportive of Taylor’s suggestion to redirect millions in construction money to upgrade air conditioning at older schools, but wanted him to look at also improving lighting and windows at those schools.
The board discussed at length finding the proper balance between neighborhood and magnet schools, but even deciding what a magnet school means anymore was murky.
Board member Tarvald Smith noted that magnets were originally intended to help schools achieve racial diversity by offering attractive programs that would draw from a wide area. But with the school system no longer under a federal desegregation order, newer magnet schools come in many varieties.
“We may have to do away with the word magnet, because it has served its purpose,” Smith said.
The idea of expanding prekindergarten programs was well received but figuring out the best way to do that generated much discussion.
Research suggests strong educational and other benefits for children who receive high quality early childhood education, and a wide-ranging strategic plan the board approved in August called for exploring ways of creating universal prekindergarten.
“I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time thinking about whether we should do this,” Taylor said.
Board members seemed to agree that pre-k should be available to all 4-year-olds, regardless of income.
But they left the door open for continuing the sliding scale used in the best known programs such as LA 4, where more affluent parents pay $300 to $400 a month in tuition to participate.
Paying for expanded prekindergarten will be challenging, though.
“We don’t have space, we don’t have any money and there is no likelihood of it. Therein lies the problem,” Taylor observed.
Currently, about 2,400 children in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system attend prekindergarten, though hundreds more are on waiting lists for spots. Enrollment for kindergarten increases to 3,400.
About a third of this year’s incoming kindergartners had not attended preschool, and they arrive roughly half as well prepared for kindergarten as their preschool-attending peers, according to results on a key literacy assessment.
“Until we start with early childhood, we’re never going to catch up at the other end,” board member Barbara Freiberg said.
Adding teachers, staff and space to educate the 1,000-plus prekindergarten kids left out now would cost millions, according to Taylor. He estimated a half-day program would cost $15.6 million a year, while a full-day program would cost $28 million a year.
“I think we need to find a way to find $30 million,” Freiberg said.
Taylor said that the school system can’t pay for such an expense by shifting spending, rather it will require additional revenue. But finding that revenue, either through private support or increased taxes, won’t be easy.
Melissa Landry talked to the board about its public image problems. Landry is a public relations consultant who has been working with Taylor temporarily as he searches for a new communications director; the last director, Susan Nelson, quit in July.
She presented a list of mostly negative newspaper and TV headlines from the last three months. She said board members need to refocus on policy making and to avoid allowing disputes to become personal.
Several board members said Taylor has work to do to try improve public perceptions.