House panel OKs bill to shrink EBR School Board

The East Baton Rouge Parish School District came under legislative fire on two fronts Wednesday, with a state House committee approving a bill that would shrink the size of the local board from 11 to 7 members.

The plan, House Bill 1178, cleared the House and Governmental Affairs Committee 6-2 and next faces action, and heated debate, in the full Louisiana House.

Meanwhile, a separate proposal that would overhaul the school district mostly by giving principals sweeping new authority sparked a lengthy hearing Wednesday night in the House Education Committee.

That proposal, House Bill 1177, is similar to one approved last week in the Senate Education Committee that is now awaiting a vote in the full Senate.

The idea has sparked fierce opposition from Superintendent Bernard Taylor, other district leaders and about 20 principals who attended the hearing.

After nearly five hours of testimony, House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, asked that a vote on his HB1177 be delayed until April 23.

Shortly before 11 p.m. the committee voted to do just that on a 12-2 vote.

Carter said more time was needed for amendments. Opponents said there were questions on whether the bill had enough votes to pass.

All the action took place on the last day of legislative work before a four-day Easter break at the halfway mark of the nearly three-month session.

State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the smaller school board bill, said the district used to have about 80,000 students and 12 school board members and now has 11 panel members for about 42,000 students.

“A smaller school board would be a more efficient school board,” Honoré told the committee.

Adam Knapp, chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, urged the panel to approve the legislation. Knapp said a smaller school board would help re-engage residents in the local school system and spark “better, faster decisions.”

“We think that will lead to better outcomes,” Knapp added.

State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, testified against the bill.

Barrow said Honoré’s proposal would disenfranchise voters and would be unconstitutional.

She said she was also caught off guard that the bill was being filed shortly before the session began on March 10.

“The people that I represent are not in favor of this bill,” Barrow said.

Barrow said the Zachary school district has a nine-member board with about 5,400 residents and the Central school system has a seven-member board with about 4,500 residents.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school district board represents about 372,000 residents, officials said.

Honoré’s bill would set up six single-member districts and one at large.

He said it could take effect in time for this year’s school board elections if the Legislature acts quickly enough.

Honoré told the committee he was not surprised by the opposition to his board measure.

“Nobody wants change,” Honoré said. “The people who elected me did not elect me to come here and get in step with everybody else.”

Mike McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, opposed the bill.

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, also criticized the legislation.

Davis said the revamped school board districts would be larger than the legislative districts of state House members.

Honore offered a different view.

“Everybody knows that with a smaller group there is a lot more cooperation,” he said.

Honore also said he thinks the smaller board would save about $100,000 per year that could be used for district operations.

The second plan, House Bill 1177, would expand the authority of principals by allowing them to hammer out budgets, recruit and hire personnel and oversee curriculum, instruction methods, professional development and other issues.

The legislation would also create community school councils of parents and others to forge ties between communities and their schools and craft policies to involve parents and guardians in schools.

That would include the establishment of goals, academic focus and disciplinary expectations.

Carter said his push is aimed at upgrading a public school system that he attended years ago.

“This bill is a blueprint for principal power, not a mandate,” Carter said.

Opponents charged that the bill would impose too many business duties on principals.

Greenbrier Elementary School Principal Sharmayne Rutledge said principals work days, nights and weekends with a focus on instruction.

“I have 480 students,” Rutledge said. “I know the students by name, their reading level, their math level and any learning gaps they may have.

“We do not have time, as others have said, to do anything else other than focus on student achievement,” she said.

Broadmoor Elementary School Principal Larry Harris blasted the proposal.

“I am appalled, I am offended,” Harris told the committee.

“I am tired of people telling me how bad we are,” Haris said. “I run my school. There is nobody at the central office telling me what to do.”

Voting YES on the smaller school board proposal House Bill 1178 (6): state Reps. Taylor Barras, D-New Iberia, Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula, John Schroder, R-Covington and Tim Burns, R-Mandeville.

Voting NO on HB1178 (2): state Reps. Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans and Greg Miller, R-Destrehan.