Bill to restructure EBR district, backed by BRAC and Sen. Brodi White, passes committee: Snapshot / The Times Picayune

At-a-Glance: A proposal to restructure the East Baton Rouge Parish School System took its first step through the Louisiana Legislature Wednesday, passing the Senate education committee.

The bill was expected to pass the committee, but Wednesday’s lengthy debate provided the first look at the arguments that will be used throughout what’s likely to be a long slog through the session.

The bill has been positioned as an effort to address the concerns of residents in the south part of the parish, who are frustrated by the school system and have backed the effort to incorporate the new city of St. George.

The bill: Senate Bill 636 is one of two bills sponsored by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, that are companion bills to legislation put together by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and sponsored by state Reps. Stephen Carter, R-Baton Rouge, and Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge.

This bill provides for a major restructuring of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, intending to give more autonomy to school principals and put them in charge of issues like budgeting and staffing. They’d also be able to take over tasks like transportation and food service — though the district’s central office would still be obligated to help with that, if principals want that help.

The superintendent’s role would focus on hiring and evaluating principals, as well as dealing with broader district-wide issues like developing plans to deal with student capacity throughout the district. The board’s role would also be more limited, and it would be responsible for allocating funds to each school. Per-student funding would follow students to their schools.

New amendments to the bill specify that charter schools would have to contribute to the district’s “legacy costs,” or retiree benefits. It also increases the minimum number of “enrollment zones” in the district to five, instead of three.

BRAC, Carter, Honore and White also want to reduce the size of the school board, but that is a separate piece of legislation.

The debate: The bill is strongly opposed by the school district and its biggest supporters, who showed up in force to argue against it. Several Baton Rouge principals testified that they don’t want the kind of autonomy the bill provides. They want to focus on education, not managing a facility, transportation system and food services, they said.

East Baton Rouge supporters also argued that the district has made significant strides in recent years, and doesn’t need this imposition from the legislature. They also said they were frustrated that parents, principals and teachers were not consulted on the legislation.

White, Honore, Carter and BRAC CEO Adam Knapp testified in support of the bill, saying something needs to be changed with the way education is delivered in East Baton Rouge Parish. The consultant they worked with on the legislation from the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, also described how these approaches have been used successfully in other districts.

The voice:

“It’s the first time in my adult life where the whole parish is talking about trying to change, improve, to get more people engaged in public education in East Baton Rouge Parish. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We’re going to disagree on how we do it. We pass laws all the time that are not perfect, and we come back and adjust them.” – Sen. Bodi White

“The autonomy that’s in here, that you all want to give me, I don’t want.” – Phyllis Crawford, principal at Sherwood Middle Academic Magnet

“What I see in the bill is that it is a framework for improvement. That is not a guarantee of improvement. The variable in all of this is leadership quality, commitment to teaching quality.” – State Superintendent John White

The vote: The bill was reported favorably to the full Senate, with no objections.

Lagniappe: Christine Campbell, senior research and policy director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, testified that in other districts that have adopted this approach, improvements can be seen within about two to three years.

Bottom line: The bill moves to the full Senate, but still has a long way to go before it can become law. White offered to meet with some of the legislators who are backing the EBR district and hash out compromises on the details of the bill, so it might change by the next time we see it. The biggest challenge for the bill, however, will be making it through the House.

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