Baton Rouge school legislation aims to reduce need for creating city of St. George / The Times Picayune

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber hopes its legislation to dramatically restructure Baton Rouge’s public school system will convince St. George supporters that they don’t need to form their own city.

BRAC CEO Adam Knapp said that many of those who are backing the incorporation of a new city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish are doing so because they want to see better neighborhood schools with more local control. BRAC’s two bills, introduced Tuesday by state Reps. Steve Carter and Dalton Honore’, are an attempt to provide that without the incorporation.

Knapp said if these changes to the school system pass, “it diminishes the need and urgency for incorporation.”

In fact, St. George backer state Sen. Bodi White has been in talks with BRAC about the legislation, and introduced his own, identical bills in the state Senate.

That’s a “very positive sign,” said Michael DiResto, senior vice president for economic competitiveness. BRAC opposes the incorporation.

Knapp said he began talking to White, along with some of the St. George campaign leaders, about education issues over coffee after a radio appearance a few months ago. In late February, White pre-filed a bill that had some of the same general themes, such as giving principals more autonomy over their schools, but broke the East Baton Rouge district into four “sub-districts.” At that point, BRAC officials started reaching out to him again.

As these different plans to revamp the East Baton School district have swirled about, the leaders of the St. George campaign have maintained that they’re still working toward gathering 18,000 signatures for their petition and want to bring it to a vote in November. On Tuesday, White also filed legislation to form a St. George “transition district” and provide a process for getting the new city up and running.

If the incorporation effort gathers the signatures required and wins an election, the East Baton Rouge restructuring would still be important for the remaining school district, BRAC officials said.

“It’s good for kids, is the bottom line,” said Liz Smith, BRAC policy and research manager.

The legislation is the result of BRAC’s work with a Seattle-based policy and research organization called the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Smith said. The organization has worked in cities around the country, including New York City, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Cleveland, to implement what it calls a “portfolio strategy” in local education systems. Among other things, that strategy entails giving more autonomy to individual schools, principals and teachers, tying funding to each student, and “extensive public engagement” with families and the community.

Those themes are present in the legislation. The bills call for:

  • Principals to be responsible for: developing their own budgets; hiring and evaluating their staff; student discipline policies; health and safety for students and staff; the daily school schedule; and the school’s curriculum and instruction.
  • The superintendent to be responsible for: hiring and evaluating principals, and removing those that do not meet state minimum standards; creating a common enrollment system for traditional public schools and charter schools; creating a plan to address excess demand for schools; and if requested by a principal, helping them with services like food service, transportation, and custodial work.
  • The school board to be responsible for: developing a school system budget, but not the budgets of individual schools; allocating funds to each school; building new schools and handling major facilities maintenance and repair; establishing enrollment zones; and preparing the district for emergencies and disasters.
  • Reducing the size of the school board from 11 members to seven, including one at-large representative.
  • Forming at least three “enrollment zones” where students would have priority to attend schools in their zone.
  • Forming “community school councils” for each enrollment zone, which would support principals and act as an advocate for schools. The council would be made up of at least half parents of students at schools in that zone, and 40 percent community members of business people who live or work in the zone.

The law would take full effect by July 1, 2017.

BRAC officials said that the legislation provides for a transition period, so principals can receive proper training and get used to their new duties.

Getting principals to sign onto the idea may prove to be one of the biggest challenges. The East Baton Rouge district did not comment on the legislation, but spokesman Keith Bromery passed along notes from a “breakout group” of principals and other district staff who looked over the bills. Many expressed concerns that principals might not want that level of control and responsibility over things like human resources issues.

“Principals want no responsibility for anything outside of teaching and learning!” one person said.

“Principals are not business managers – not trained to manage and negotiate contracts,” said another.

They also were concerned that breaking down some of these operations to the individual school level would mean that they would lose economies of scale, losing money because they couldn’t buy in bulk.

Smith, of BRAC, emphasized that the legislation says the district should still provide support for principals on issues like food service and transportation, if they want it. The principals just have to account for it in their budget.

“The hope is that they seize that autonomy and they run with it,” but the support from the central office is there if they need it, Smith said.

BRAC officials added that schools can partner with other schools to go after things like transportation, to preserve those economies of scale if they want to. DiResto said there also may be cases where schools can actually save money by looking for different deals.

Regardless, it seems clear a change in leadership at the district level would be in the works if this legislation passes. The school board would be dramatically reshaped, with fewer members and new district lines being drawn. Whoever is on the new board would be the ones picking a superintendent, whether that’s current Superintendent Bernard Taylor or someone else.

Taylor appears to be in line with at least some of the general ideas being proposed: He’s put forth his own plan, which Knapp described as a “weaker version” of the legislation.

Taylor’s plan would give principals more autonomy over staffing at their schools. But at least as described so far, it doesn’t go to the same level of tasking them with dealing with things like food service and transportation.

Taylor also suggests a community advisory council of sorts, and he proposes to divide the district into “families of schools,” similar to the BRAC legislation’s enrollment zones.

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