A federal district judge said Monday he has the authority to transfer the state-run St. Helena Central Middle School back into local School Board control but he’s not going to do so right now.
St. Helena Parish school system officials argued that the district’s dramatic improvement in state test scores, coupled with a financial turnaround from the brink of insolvency, proved that local officials know best how to improve parish schools and should be given a chance to do the same for the middle school.
But U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the parish’s 60-year-old desegregation case, said during a status conference that he wants to see a longer track record of success before he considers removing the middle school from the Louisiana Department of Education’s Recovery School District.
Brady granted the RSD’s request to take over St. Helena Central Middle School in May 2010, following five years of failing scores and one year under a state-mandated agreement outlining performance goals.
Under state law, the RSD maintains control of a school for a minimum of five years before returning it to local control.
The RSD was created in 2003 to turn around failing schools, but St. Helena officials said the state-run district has not lived up to its promise at the parish’s middle school.
St. Helena Central Elementary School and St. Helena Central High School, under School Board control, have outperformed the RSD-run middle school, School Board attorney Nelson Taylor argued in his June 27 motion. And the disruption of continuity as students move back and forth between the two districts has been detrimental to the children’s education, he said.
The local district has a clear vision and plan for success, but the School Board must be able to implement its plan across all grade levels, St. Helena Superintendent Kelli Joseph said.
“We have quality teaching, high expectations, and our children are learning,” Joseph said. “And you’ll see it again and again because we’re focused, not on test scores, but on creating a productive school culture.”
“I’m definitely in your corner,” Brady said. “I think locals should run the schools, but frankly, I’ve got to see more.”
In a related matter, Brady declined to address the board’s request for independence from state-mandated agreements regarding the parish’s elementary and high schools, saying he needed more information from the attorneys first.
Under state law, the agreements, known as Memoranda of Understanding, provide an alternative for failing schools to avoid falling under RSD control. The agreements instead place the schools under RSD supervision and outline performance goals for the contract period, after which the schools are either released back to local control or transferred to the Recovery School District.
St. Helena’s agreements with the state expired June 30, and school officials have refused to enter into new ones.
RSD Assistant Superintendent Dana Peterson declined to comment on the matter Monday, saying the state was still in negotiations with the School Board.
But Taylor said he has instructed the School Board and superintendent not to sign anything.
“They’re doing better than the RSD is, so why should they?” Taylor said after Monday’s status conference. “They’re not signing it.”
Brady gave the attorneys two weeks to file briefs on the issue and scheduled another status conference for Sept. 18.