Inside Report Control of some EBR schools a hot issue

A key battle in the struggle for control of public education in Baton Rouge is being waged over who gets to control school buildings.

Expensive and valuable assets in and of themselves, school buildings are also vehicles by which public schools can attract and house students and thereby collect the public education funding that pays for everything else.

By this measure, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has been losing control, and fast. The Baker, Central and Zachary school systems took with them 14 schools. A proposed school district in southeast Baton Rouge, which will go before the Legislature a second time this spring, would take with it 10 more schools.

The state-run Recovery School District, since 2008, has wrested control of eight more public schools in Baton Rouge, seven in north Baton Rouge. All of them were low-performing, though a few were showing strong signs of progress pretakeover, signs that were ignored by state leaders.

Unlike Baker, Central and Zachary, the eight RSD schools didn’t automatically take students with them. Many students who would have ordinarily gone to those schools bolted, opting instead for remaining East Baton Rouge Parish schools, overcrowding some of them in the process.

Indeed, as of Feb. 1, the eight RSD schools were educating about 2,300 students, fewer than half the students there prior to the state takeover. One building, Prescott Middle, which has held up to 1,000 students in the past, has no students at all. It’s fenced off and is home to RSD administrative offices. The pro-school system parent group One Community, One School District began circulating an online petition on April 1 seeking the return of Prescott.

This situation has been a continual source of frustration for East Baton Rouge Parish school leaders. Months of intensive talks between state leaders and parish school Superintendent Bernard Taylor have as yet not led to any schools returning.

RSD schools in Baton Rouge have made so-far-fruitless attempts to reverse their poor initial public reception. Six were charter schools, public schools run privately, that foundered and had their charters pulled. Only Kenilworth Science and Technology School, a charter school, has remained intact and managed to showed some enrollment and academic growth.

Far from chastened by this outcome, state education leaders have doubled down. State Superintendent of Education John White has been pushing for a major expansion. He’s created the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone, a network of charter schools or charter-like schools mimicking New Orleans, where the RSD oversees the highest concentration of charter school in the nation.

Taylor has responded with his own change plans, an underlying theme of which is preventing further state takeovers.

On March 21, during a contentious six-hour meeting, Taylor persuaded the School Board to make a series of moves, including closing and restructuring two schools, Mayfair Middle and Delmont Elementary, schools that, unchanged, would likely be taken over this fall.

Taylor is following up by asking the board in April to make changes at other possible takeover targets, including turning Claiborne Elementary into a magnet school, moving a gifted program from Glen Oaks Park to Merrydale Elementary, and sending middle school-aged students at Glen Oaks High to a new location.

Charles Lussier writes about education in East Baton Rouge Parish for The Advocate. He can be reached at clussier@theadvocate.com.