Forum members discuss need to change Act 1

The upcoming legislative session could be a chance for lawmakers to clear up confusion created by a 2012 law that has confounded school districts as it bounces through legal challenges, said educators who discussed the law, known as Act 1, during a forum Tuesday in Lafayette.

Act 1 changed several aspects of education law related to teacher pay, evaluation and tenure, superintendent contracts and transferred final approval of hiring and firing decisions from school boards to superintendents.

For the second time in less than a year, Act 1 was ruled unconstitutional by a state district judge. With an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court pending, the law remains in effect. Another legal challenge of the law specific to its changes to teacher tenure is also still pending.

The law is creating money problems in cash-strapped districts over litigation filed by employees affected by the changes, said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

“It’s one thing to pass a law with good intentions and it’s another thing to implement aspects of that law in the School Board rooms and districts in our state. All those things compounded have caused a great deal of confusion. We hope the legislature can take up those issues,” Richard said.

The law’s effect on school districts was discussed Tuesday during a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Lafayette, and education-focused community groups: Parents Empowered, Power of Public Education Lafayette and Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council.

During the 90-minute forum, Richard and other panelists, Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators; Patrice Pujol, president of the Louisiana Superintendents Association; and Nathan Roberts, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette education professor, responded to questions posed by the groups, then from audience members.

While the rocky relations between the Lafayette Parish School Board and Superintendent Pat Cooper has been at the forefront of Act 1 debate in Lafayette, across the state, most school boards are struggling with the creation and implementation of policies to comply with the law, Richard said.

The law requires school districts to create new salary schedules based on teacher performance rather than experience and to pay teachers more if they’re in a demand field based on a district’s particular needs.

It also requires districts to have reduction in force policies that don’t factor in seniority, but teacher effectiveness.

Panelists agreed that aspects of Act 1 related to teacher tenure and evaluation need a second look by the Legislature with input from educators, school boards and the business community.

“It really is time for all the stakeholders to come together,” Meaux said. “We need to develop a system that provides good appropriate education for our students that does not also punish the adults.”

If the Supreme Court upholds the unconstitutionality ruling, there are aspects of Act 1 that districts could choose to continue, the panelists said in response to a question from Jason El Koubi, president of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.

“Things like salary schedule could remain,” Pujol said. “If Act 1 is overturned, the law says the board hires and fires personnel. ... There are many school boards across the state that depend on the expertise of the professional administrators of their districts to make those determinations (prior to the law) and they by and large will support those recommendations. It’s not that it’s necessarily the law — it’s reasonable people making reasonable decisions and communicating together for the good of the kids.”

Greg Davis, a LaPESC member, asked the panel whether the law may affect failing schools since it gives the public a clear line of accountability — superintendents and principals.

The law allows districts freedom to structure its salary schedule to pay teachers at failing schools more as an incentive to recruit teachers to high-needs schools, Roberts said.

“If the board wants to pay more to get teachers at (a school), they can do that,” Roberts said. “It gives options to change things around.”