EBR School Board meddling in administration, critics say

The escalating conflict between Superintendent Bernard Taylor and a majority of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has revived complaints that the board is micromanaging the man it hired to run the school system.

Raymond Allmon, Baton Rouge director of the parent group Stand for Children, said the board’s decision on Aug. 1 to reinstate 41 deans of students and time-out moderators, over Taylor’s objections, is a good example.

Allmon noted that state legislation approved in 2012 gives superintendents sole control over personnel decisions.

“Staffing decisions are black and white,” said Allmon, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the School Board in 2010.

Noel Hammatt, who served on the School Board for 16 years, was on the board in 2010 when then-superintendent John Dilworth resigned, complaining through intermediaries about micromanagement by specific board members. Dilworth, who had been on the job for only 10 months, rescinded his resignation 20 days later. He left the system two years later.

Hammatt said the current situation looks different. He said the board on Aug. 1 was not talking about individual employees, but groups of employees.

“I don’t think that an open discussion at the board level about classes of people, whether we need deans of students or not, I don’t think that is micromanagement,” Hammatt said.

The micromanagement question is expected to come up again when the School Board meets on Thursday.

The board is considering approving a new strategic plan for the school system. One item calls for board members to sign a document that, among other things, sets clear parameters distinguishing the proper role of the board versus “management.”

Taylor himself has steered clear of using the term “micromanagement” in talking about his dealings with the board. During a speech to the Baton Rouge Press Club in September, Taylor disavowed the idea that board members are doing that to him.

“No one is micromanaging,” he said then. “It’s easy to criticize, but it’s hard to get in there to do the hard work.”

However, Taylor’s rhetoric has been more combative of late. As the board has defeated or altered his initiatives, Taylor has repeatedly made it clear that he thinks the board is increasingly treading on his turf.

“You hired me to do a job,” he said on Aug. 1 when it became clear the board was going to buck him on budget issues. “If you’re not going to let me do a job, then just say so.”

Taylor has alluded several times to the possibility of resigning if the board does not support his initiatives.

It’s a turnabout for Taylor.

For much of his first year, Taylor, using the new authority superintendents were granted by the legislature, exercised unfettered power over many areas, including personnel. He replaced dozens of principals and administrators, and heavily cut back staff in the Central Office.

As recently as March, the board, by wide margins, authorized Taylor to make sweeping changes to several schools in Baton Rouge.

Taylor, however, offered few specifics of what he was going to do. As the details emerged, board members began to question the superintendent, demanding more information before approving new initiatives.

Taylor also got crosswise with the board in divisive votes over whether to move some retirees solely onto Medicare, and whether to hire for $2.7 million over four years the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Learning to train teachers in the Common Core educational standards.

The board approved the Medicare shift, after much debate, but it allowed retirees who wanted to remain on the school system’s group insurance to do so, which substantially cut into the savings.

Taylor also struggled to get the board to agree to the Institute for Learning contract, prompting him to pull back and seek requests for proposals from interested groups.

Board member Craig Freeman along with fellow board members David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson are the only three among the 11 board members who continue to consistently support Taylor on tough issues.

Freeman has publicly described the behavior of some board members as micromanagement, saying that “they are substituting their judgment for that of the superintendent.”

Freeman pointed to the Aug. 1 budget debate that led to the reinstatement of the deans of students and time-out room moderators. He noted that board members Vereta Lee and Tarvald Smith both mentioned that they know personally people affected by the move and think they do a good job.

Freeman, however, said micromanagement is only part of the problems between the board and Taylor, whom he said he still considers a “great superintendent.”

“There are communications issues that we have to address,” Freeman said. “There’s not a party here with clean hands.”

Freeman also blames the state Department of Education for many of the school system’s current problems.

“I feel much more that the state is micromanaging the system than the board is micromanaging the system,” he said.

Taylor was perhaps at his most combative when the board balked at his plans to hire the Institute for Learning. He said the board was infringing on a “core function” of being superintendent: the training of teachers to excel in the classroom.

Allmon, of the parent group Stand for Children, said the board was within its rights to question that contract and he doesn’t consider that micromanagement.

The micromanagement issue prompted the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in summer 2010 to belatedly try to get a slate of candidates to oust all but one incumbent on the board.

Allmon’s group already is seeking out candidates for the 2014 School Board elections. He said the parents group already has identified potential candidates for seven of the 11 School Board races.

He said the group has raised nearly $200,000 so far and hopes to have more than $350,000 next year to spend on those races.

He said groups of Stand for Children parents will determine which candidates to support.

While micromanagement is an issue, Allmon said the group also is focused on bringing new “high quality” schools to Baton Rouge and on giving teachers extra pay to teach in struggling schools.

“The next two years are really important for the state of public education in this city,” Allmon said.