EBR School Board opposes bill to strip its powers

Calling it unconstitutional, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted Thursday to oppose legislation that would strip its power and that of Superintendent Bernard Taylor and hand it to principals, many of whom have said publicly they don’t want the added power.

The board approved the resolution in a 9-0 vote,with board members David Tatman and Barbara Freiberg abstaining.

Afterward, both said they abstained because they want to keep working with legislators to try to improve the bill, but they admitted they have many objections. Tatman said he spoke earlier this week with the author of Senate Bill 636, Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, about ways to improve the legislation.

“I felt like it would be disingenuous to vote for the resolution while I was working with the author to amend it,” Tatman explained.

The resolution says SB636 violates Article 3, Section 12 of the Louisiana Constitution, which prohibits the Legislature from “passing local or special laws regulating the management of parish or city public schools.”

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said the School Board could sue to block the legislation if it passes, but the resolution does not speak to that, and the board will have to assess its legal options in the future.

SB 636 is awaiting action on the House floor after recently passing the Senate and on Tuesday winning the approval of the House Education Committee; the session ends June 2. The legislation was developed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which has maintained a drumbeat of criticism of the school system in a series of recent reports and public statements.

“Given the track record of the school board and their singular lack of focus on solutions for improving our schools, it’s no surprise that they passed this resolution, but neither is it very meaningful,” Adam Knapp, president and CEO of BRAC, said in a written statement late Thursday. “Instead of offering any substantive input that could have helped shape the legislation, they chose to sit on the sidelines for weeks and weeks, only to chime in now — not with ideas, but with a gesture.”

The resolution approved Thursday notes the school system is developing its own reform plan, with many of the same elements as White’s bill, and plans to showcase its plan at a series of public meetings this fall with the idea of reporting the results to the Legislature by January.

Belinda Davis, president of the parent group One Community, One School District, which opposes SB 636, praised the school system for holding community meetings, contrasting it with the chamber’s unwillingness to hold its own community meetings before introducing the legislation in early April.

“It shows that you value those things in a way that the Baton Rouge chamber does not,” she told board members.

Also on Thursday, the board in a 9-2 vote approved a 6 percent across-the-board increase in the cost of employee health insurance that will take effect Jan. 1. Board members Vereta Lee and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith voted no. The increase is meant to cover a projected $2.4 million increase in the cost of medical care in 2015. The premium hikes range from $4 more per month for a single active employee in the cheaper Core Plan to $125.82 more per month for a non-Medicare eligible retiree with a family enrolled in the more generous Buy-Up Plan.

The board also amended, without discussion, its pupil progression plan to allow fourth- and eighth-graders who fail the LEAP test a chance to advance to the next grade if they have passing grades in school, have not missed too many school days, attend summer school and retake the LEAP test in the summer. Students who continue to fail but are promoted will receive continued remediation in the subjects where they fall short.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education agreed in April to let school districts make these kinds of promotions. Some research suggests that retaining children, especially older children, in the same grade can be counterproductive.

Meanwhile, longtime administrators Mary “Katie” Blunshi, executive director of school leadership; Ken Jenkins, director of student activities; and Willis Fitzgerald, supervisor of transportation; announced they are retiring. Blunschi and Jenkins are retiring this summer, while Fitzgerald is not retiring until Dec. 31.