Head of Baton Rouge schools seeks alternative to charters

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor has a plan to fight off charter school competition by creating autonomous schools that operate as part of the school system.

“I’m trying to figure out the best way of having features of charter schools but have the financial benefits accrue to the whole system,” Taylor explained.

Taylor is presenting his proposal, which he’s calling “Innovative Schools” to the School Board at 5 p.m. Thursday at the School Board Office, 1050 S. Foster Drive.

The idea is to send out a request for proposals open to teachers, administrators, national education management organizations, current school leadership teams and nonprofit organizations from Louisiana and nationwide to run “high-quality, new schools.”

He said he wants proposals from groups with research to back up their claims, a track record of success, willingness to work with the budget limits that other parish schools operate under, but most importantly, to do something different from the status quo.

“I’m not looking for proposals that just do more of the same,” said Taylor, adding that more of the same is largely what he sees the latest crop of charter schools doing.

He said he also wants groups willing to work with students in existing schools, not start over with a whole new group of students. He said he can’t afford to do what the state has done in the past with the schools it runs in New Orleans and to a lesser extent in Baton Rouge.

“Where do I get to close 10 schools and scatter the kids to the winds,” Taylor said.

The proposals would have to get vetted by parents in the affected communities.

Taylor said he is not planning to ask for a vote Thursday, but he does want to brief board members on the plan.

He said he will come back to the board when it comes time to approve potential management contracts with applicants judged worthy.

He said he’s already had extensive talks with the Children’s Defense Fund to persuade the group to try out its literacy-based Freedom Schools summer and after-school programs and apply them as full-time programs in a school. He said if a group can get a program up and running by August, he’ll consider it — but a fall 2015 start date is most likely.

East Baton Rouge Parish is already home to 14 charter schools and several more are starting in Baton Rouge and in the surrounding area in the fall. The state is already soliciting proposals, due by March 7, for the next batch of charter schools. The charters will be awarded in the summer with a start date of 2015-16.

Charter schools are public schools run independently by private organizations via short-term contracts. Traditional public school leaders argue they can be a big financial drain.

Taylor said he’s preparing the school system’s 2014-15 general operating budget and is expecting to have to increase the amount of money he pays outside charter groups running Type 1 and Type 2 charter schools by $28 million, which is roughly double what he’s paying such organizations now.

He said he is facing the prospect of having to cut other bread-and-butter programs to pay for charters, most of which were approved by state leaders over local objections.

“It’s like I’m having trouble paying the rent and you’re telling me I gotta build a whole new house,” he said. “What sense does that make?”

Raymond Allmon, Baton Rouge director of the group Stand for Children, said he sat down with Taylor on Monday to discuss the proposal and is still reviewing it. He said he wonders why the proposal necessary.

“I don’t see how it’s different from just starting a charter school,” Allmon said.

Allmon said the school system has some control now if it grants the charter. He doesn’t buy the argument that charters drain money since the students in those schools are still part of the school system.

Echoing arguments of other traditional school administrators, Taylor said he can’t save money to offset what he loses to new charter schools because it’s a few students here, a few students there at many schools.

“It’s not enough to allow me to get rid of a teacher, or to lose a school bus,” he said.

Taylor’s request for proposals seeks to fulfill four purposes: turning around A-, B- or C-rated schools; blending online instruction with traditional classroom instruction; infusing art throughout the curriculum; and adding career or technical-focused education.

Taylor said he’d love to see, for instance, a school that focuses on leadership training for young men from low-income households. Even a school that replaced traditional grades with other performance measures could be interesting, he said.

Board member Craig Freeman said he sees the need for alternatives to current charter schools.

“Instead of bringing in partners to do the same things we’re already doing, I’d like to bring in partners to do something radically different and make it work in Baton Rouge,” Freeman said.