Inside Report: St. Helena school chief wants to reconfigure schools

St. Helena Parish Superintendent Kelli Joseph says she will not give up until her schools are whole again.

On Monday, she again will ask a federal judge in Baton Rouge for the right to do what she says any other school district in the state can do — reconfigure the district’s schools to better meet student needs.

Standing in her way is the state-run Recovery School District, which has controlled the parish’s only middle school since May 2010.

Previous attempts to have U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the school district’s 60-year-old desegregation case, forcibly return the parish’s middle school from state to local control have failed.

In August, Brady also rebuffed the school district’s attempt to add fifth-grade classes to its pre-K-4 elementary school.

Brady’s refusal to return the middle school to local control is not surprising: State law makes clear that all schools transferred to the RSD must remain under state control for a minimum of five years — a restriction that would remain in effect until 2015 — at which point the state must decide whether to continue RSD control, convert the school to a charter, close it or return it to the local school district.

While the federal judge said in July he has the authority to circumvent that procedure, he declined to do so with only one year’s worth of improvement in student performance scores at the parish-run elementary and high schools.

But the question of reconfiguring the existing elementary and high schools to include grades currently offered only at the middle school is a more complicated matter.

In July 2009, after several years of failing student performance scores, the school district entered into a pair of state-mandated performance agreements for the elementary and high schools.

Those agreements specifically prohibited the local district from renaming or reconfiguring the schools to offer additional grade levels.

When the agreements expired on June 30, district officials refused to sign new ones and the state did not force the issue. The state, however, continued to oppose the parish’s attempt to add new grades, presumably because the RSD would have to compete against the parish for per-pupil funding from the state for those grades.

School Board attorney Nelson Taylor has maintained that, without new contracts, there is no law or provision that would prevent the local district from adding grades to the existing school campuses.

There is, however, a federal judge.

Brady did not say, in his Aug. 8 order, why the school system’s fifth-grade students must all remain at the RSD-run middle school — whether it was because he believed the change would be detrimental for the parish’s students or because the School Board had not requested his permission first, a common requirement in desegregation cases.

But St. Helena school officials clearly see the status quo as the more detrimental option.

St. Helena is perhaps unique among those parishes with schools taken over by the state in that the parish school system has only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school.

When the state took over the middle school in 2010, and continued to demand that the elementary and high schools serve no additional grade levels, it effectively deprived the school district of the continuity and control needed to ensure that lessons being taught in the initial grades are carried through to high school, Joseph said.

And, she said, it stands in the way of unifying a community that has long struggled to become whole once again.

Heidi Kinchen covers the St. Helena school system for The Advocate. She can be reached at hkinchen@theadvocate.com.