Choosing EBR superintendent could be first — and most difficult — task for new school board

The Advocate

A new nine-member East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, two seats smaller than the board it’s replacing, will have little time to settle on who will lead the second-largest public school district in Louisiana.

The contract for Superintendent Bernard Taylor — who’s had rocky relations with the current board for most of his tenure — expires June 30. If the new board taking the oath of office in early January does not keep Taylor, it will need a leader by July. The longer it takes to settle on how best to find that person, the more likely it is the newly elected board will opt to hire an interim superintendent for the 2015-16 school year.

Settling on an interim, though, could prove difficult. There are a few potential in-house and many potential outside candidates. And if the board can’t agree on one of those, there is always Taylor, who remains available — provided he doesn’t land another job first.

If the board does decide on a new interim superintendent, that person has a shot at keeping the job, thereby eliminating the need for a search altogether.

The potentially contentious idea of trying out an interim with the option to make the candidate permanent is being floated by Barbara Freiberg, former board president.

“I would like to have someone come in as interim who knows the education issues of this state,” Freiberg said.

She said the often ugly 2012 nationwide search that led to the hiring of Taylor is not something she wants to repeat.

Freiberg’s challenge will be persuading her fellow board members to go along. In truth, though, she needs only to focus her efforts on a six-vote supermajority, of which she is a member, that voters put in office in the recent elections.

The business-backed supermajority set to take office includes five incumbents: Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Freiberg, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson. There is one newcomer being added to the mix, insurance executive Mark Bellue, who defeated relative newcomer Mary Lynch.

The opposition on the board, meanwhile, has shrunk from five to three, and they are in a much weaker position to exert influence.

Lynch and Jerry Arbour lost soundly at the polls. Their races were made much more difficult by the board’s controversial July 24 vote to reduce its size from 11 to 9 members.

The three remaining members of the opposition are Vereta Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Tarvald Smith. They are all black. Ware-Jackson, who defeated Arbour, is the fourth black member of the board. The remaining five board members are white.

“I anticipate a lot of 6-3, 5-4 votes,” predicted Smith, the board’s current vice president.

The supermajority, assuming it does coalesce into a cohesive group, can set the agenda for the next four years, including deciding the next superintendent.

Reaching consensus on a choice as tough as a new leader, even among just those six, however, promises to be difficult, if the 2012 search is any guide.

Between January and March of that year, the board interviewed two rounds of finalists before settling on Taylor, who did not make the first cut. Disagreements raged from all corners as consensus proved elusive.

Taylor had some successes, including improving test scores overall and a reduction in the number of F-rated schools, although a few schools slipped back into F status this year and a handful of newly created alternative schools that educate the toughest students promptly earned F grades.

Taylor’s honeymoon was over before the end of his first year as he clashed with several board members over spending priorities, health insurance for retirees, student discipline and a contract to train teachers for the Common Core educational standards. He earned low job evaluations compared with his predecessors.

The dissatisfaction culminated in a 10-1 vote on June 12 not to renew his contract. Craig Freeman, who opted not to run for re-election, was the superintendent’s lone vote of support that night, though Ware-Jackson said she did support a contract renewal and might try again if Taylor’s support increased.

That staunch opposition to Taylor changed, however, after the fall elections. The outgoing 11-member board at the last meeting on Dec. 18 tried to take Freeman and Ware-Jackson up on that support. Lynch proposed extending Taylor’s current three-year contractby another 18 months, but shelved the idea on the eve of a vote at Taylor’s request.

Lynch and the rest of the five-member opposition had opposed Taylor’s contract extension six months before, but changed their tune after the election results shrank their numbers. Ware-Jackson and Freeman, however, did not take the bait, dooming the last-minute maneuver to failure. Both members said they didn’t think it made sense to vote on renewal with a new board about to be seated.

Smith, who supported extending Taylor’s contract despite past disagreements, said he hopes the newly elected board will give Taylor one more look before letting him go.

“I hope we can revisit whether we want to change course,” Smith said.

Most of the supermajority received substantial money in the fall elections from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby. The best indication of what those leaders want for that support is a five-point agenda called “Our Goals” developed by the Grigsby-formed group Better Schools for Better Futures in consultation with other like-minded groups. The top goal is to hire a “strong new superintendent,” which includes developing a list of qualifications and creating a “new selection process.”

While the clock is ticking on getting a superintendent search underway, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, said that it’s still possible to find a good candidate for the 2015-16 school year if the board focuses on the issue in January or February.

“By March, though, it’s starting to get too late,” he said.

Local business leaders have increasingly pressed for a much different kind of search than Louisiana school boards have traditionally undertaken. Rather than an open search that culminates in a handful of finalists or semifinalists, the board would instead empower a search firm to bring back just one person. The idea is that top candidates won’t even apply if they have to publicly compete against other finalists.

The Louisiana Board of Supervisors in March 2012 did just that when it named lone finalist F. King Alexander as LSU chancellor. The Advocate went to district court and won a lawsuit seeking access to other records generated by that search and is awaiting a decision by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.

Freiberg said she balked at the idea of doing such a closed search in 2012 and has qualms about doing it now, though she said she is still open to suggestion.

Freiberg, however, would much prefer putting off a search and instead focusing on finding a good interim superintendent. She pointed to the tenure of James Meza in Jefferson Parish as an example. He was brought in as an interim, promoted to permanent superintendent and has groomed a successor.

“He was able to work with the state and put in some innovative programs down there,” Freiberg said.

While Meza is not interested in Baton Rouge — Freiberg said she asked — there are other educational leaders in the state, including ones within the school system, that she believes would do a good job, though she wouldn’t name names.

“I think there are people in or out of this system who could potentially take on this role,” she said.

Smith said he is drawing the line against any candidate connected with the state-run Recovery School District, or RSD, which has taken over some of Baton Rouge’s struggling schools. That includes current Deputy Superintendent Michael Haggen, who spent three years with RSD in New Orleans before coming to Baton Rouge.

“I’m not ready to sing ‘Kumbaya’ with RSD,” Smith said.

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