EBR schools overhaul bill sparks split

The Advocate

Battle lines were forming Wednesday morning over a hotly-contested bill aimed improving the East Baton Rouge Parish school system by giving principals sweeping new authority.

The proposal, House Bill 1177, is set for a vote in the House Education Committee today, the third time that the measure has been on the panel’s agenda.

Leaders of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which back the measure, issued a list of 50 business and community leaders which the group says backs the bill, including East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III, former LSU basketball star Collis Temple Jr., now executive director of Harmony Center, Inc., and two members of the Metro Council, Buddy Amoroso and Ryan Heck.

“The East Baton Rouge Parish school system has taken steps in the right direction but continues to underperform,” said BRAC president and chief executive officer Adam Knapp in a prepared statement.

“Now is the time to put these changes in place to set the system up for success,” said Knapp, who has been heavily involved in pushing the bill.

Meanwhile, officials of two other groups planned to oppose the measure and urged opponents to show up at Wednesday’s hearing, which is expected to start in mid or late afternoon.

Leaders of One Community One School District sent emails to members urging them to appear at the hearing or to call committee members to register their opposition.

Leaders of the Baton Rouge Association for Gifted and Talented Students said they also plan to oppose the proposal, which is sponsored by House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, B-Baton Rouge.

“We believe that BRAC should withdraw this legislation and instead work with education partners to develop sound community-supported solutions that address actual issues our school system faces,” the group said in a prepared statement.

The premise of the bill is that, in large school systems like East Baton Rouge Parish, principals face obstacles that prevent them from making administrative decisions that would most impact their schools.

The bill would designate principals as the chief executive officer of the school.

They would be responsible for proposing school budgets, personnel management and hiring.

Principals would also operate under management contracts, and they could be dismissed for failing to meet academic and other goals.

Backers say that, by giving principals new authority, student academic performance will improve in a more innovative, autonomous classroom environment.

Opponents, including nearly two dozen principals in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, have argued that the changes would saddle them with food service, transportation and other duties that would trim time they have to aid students.

The bill has sparked a series of nighttime negotiating sessions at the State Capitol in hopes of reaching a compromise.

However, officials said little progress has been made in recent days.

Carter plans to offer more than a dozen amendments when the bill is discussed on Wednesday.

Opponents said those proposed changes would do little to ease their concerns.

A nearly identical plan, Senate Bill 636, was approved earlier this year by the Senate Education Committee and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, sponsor of that measure, agreed on Monday to a delay while Senate backers and opponents continue talks.

The debate is reminiscent of heated arguments in 2012 and 2013 over White’s push to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

However, the bills this time only require majority approval, not the two-thirds requirement of the breakaway plans.

Also, BRAC is a backer of the school system overhaul efforts this time after opposing both breakaway campaigns.

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