Baton Rouge Area Chamber Comes Out Against SEBR ISD; Proponents Fire Back

In a controversy likely to deepen divisions and harden positions on both sides, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce came out in opposition to a bill seeking to create a breakaway independent school district in Southeast Baton Rouge. From the Baton Rouge Business Report’s writeup of BRAC’s release

BRAC says its opposition is due to “insufficient planning and lack of information regarding the impact of the district separation on fiscal status, student capacity, and school choice across district lines,” according to a news release. The new district would be created by severing a portion of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. “BRAC shares in parents’ frustration with our current public education outcomes. However, BRAC’s board of directors felt it cannot support this legislation until proper planning and cost modeling has been done,” says BRAC President/CEO Adam Knapp, noting BRAC is not opposed to the concept of independent school districts.

The group behind the formation of the new district had a release of their own today…

We are disappointed, to say the least, that the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce has chosen to side with the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and oppose the citizen led initiative South East Baton Rouge Community School District. We believe that public education CAN succeed and that parents deserve to be, and must be involved. A passionate and active group of parents is precisely what our schools need.

We understand the political pressure the Baton Rouge Area Chamber is under to oppose this initiative and we believe that inaccurate partisan information has been provided to them. We will continue to reach out to the Chamber to educate them with accurate, factual information. We all agree that great schools in Baton Rouge will lead to the foundational strength of our future leaders while insuring the Baton Rouge business community continues to become competitive and robust.

The problem isn’t the Chamber or the teachers, and it isn’t the kids. Its’ an organization, the East Baton Rouge School Board, committed to its own bureaucracy ahead of the children. East Baton Rouge Parish School System has been failing for decades and carelessly spending billions of taxpayer dollars to produce a perennial D rated system. That is beyond unacceptable.

We will continue to fight for the residents and students in the South East Baton Rouge Community District, as well as any other area of town who request our assistance in helping them to take responsibility for their community schools.

In opposing the breakaway school district the Baton Rouge Area Chamber would deny the public the opportunity to make their own decision at the ballot box come November. The right to vote is the bedrock on which this democracy was built. Local Schools for Local Children simply asks that the people be allowed to exercise that right.

BRAC says it’s hiring LSU economist Jim Richardson to analyze independent school district feasibility. No word on when that study would be done.

Speaking of the Business Report, its publisher Rolfe McCollister has a piece out which indicates he’s at odds with BRAC on the issue of a southeast Baton Rouge ISD…

Public education is not about protecting any existing school system and the union jobs involved. It’s about doing what is necessary to educate children effectively, especially if what has been tried for decades is not working. That’s what I expect for my tax dollars that are collected for education. Why should we let a failed “system” in East Baton Rouge Parish control all the public money and force many parents to leave our parish or pay twice (first taxes, then private school tuition)?

Baker, Zachary and Central all got a chance to control their destiny at the ballot box, and so should the voters in the proposed new Southeast Baton Rouge district. I supported the efforts of the other three districts to break free from the EBR system, and I support this one, too. I hope the House of Representatives will vote to put it on the ballot, just as the state Senate did. It’s the right thing to do for these parents and children who have been trapped in a failing district, which is one of the worst in the state despite expenditures of more than $10,000 per student.

The actual cost figure, per the state Department of Education, is $12,193 for East Baton Rouge Parish – the 2nd-highest figure we could find in a perusal of the DOE’s statistics (Orleans Parish is at $14,534). Interestingly, the similar cost figures for Central ($9,141), Zachary ($9,914) and Baker ($10,601) indicate per-student yearly spending is of no value in determining the quality of the system; Zachary and Central are outstanding school districts and Baker and EBR are atrocious, and the good districts also manage to provide value for their cost.

McCollister goes further…

In the Senate debate last week, The Advocate reported, Sen. Sharon Weston Broome took issue with Sen. Bodi White’s bill for the new district. She claimed dismantling the system is not the answer. I disagree with her on that. Why be concerned for the “system,” which I do not believe is designed to serve the best interests of the children?

Broome argued that leaving one segment of the school population behind “to just suffer, that is not being community-minded.” On the contrary, I would argue that charter schools and vouchers and the attempt by KIPP Academy to open here years ago are all community-minded and aimed to help the one segment she refers to. But check the votes of Broome and her colleagues in the black community on these issues and see how they voted. They were the ones who left these opportunities behind, resulting in children trapped in failing schools. Was that “community-minded”?

Her attempt to amend the bill, which would have forced the new district to pay millions for legacy costs, failed. Broome said, “With all of these breakaways, we will be bankrupt if this is not addressed.

The EBR system is bankrupt academically, but it had a surplus in taxes collected last year. If it does go bankrupt, it will be for the same reason that businesses go bankrupt—failure to serve the customer with a quality product. It could get away with that when it had its government-run monopoly. That’s why they have fought school choice and new districts. They can’t compete—and they just won’t change. The old union-controlled, government-run system is a broken model. It’s dead. Broome needs to admit that and tell the EBR board and new superintendent to bury it.

On top of the comments by Broome, the new EBR superintendent, Bernard Taylor, seems surprised by the bills. (Certainly he knew of this issue when he accepted the job.) According to The Advocate, at a recent meeting he said, “This is supposed to be a time for me to find a place to live, figure out the lay of the land … but this issue threatens the very survival of the school district.”

He may be new to Baton Rouge, but these parents and children have been living with this failed district and are ready for action now. Children only get to grow up once, and they are not concerned about Taylor finding a house and settling in. He finds himself in this continuing “EBR mess” due to the fact that the board wasted three years with John Dilworth at the helm (a guy who quit twice). That is the board’s problem, and they made their bed. (I know only five of the current board members hired Dilworth.) The parents and children in southeast Baton Rouge shouldn’t have to lie in it anymore. They can make their own bed.

The legislators and voters should not make them suffer any more by delaying action again. They should pass the bill and let us vote on it this November. This new area has residents and parents who want to be involved in their schools in the same way as residents in Central and Zachary, both top 10 districts in the state. This new district could give Baton Rouge three of the top 10 districts in the state, and that is great for children and an asset for economic development as we recruit new companies and executives. We should not deny these parents or our community that chance. I applaud and support their efforts.

Indeed. BRAC might well have the interests of East Baton Rouge schools in mind, but an approach which depends on an economic study to find out what we already know – namely, that a well-run independent school district like Zachary and Central will improve education for kids in that district without draining funds away from East Baton Rouge, with a potential difficulty for the district being abandoned in terms of increased competition. It’s disappointing that BRAC has opted to endorse a centralized planning mentality when what has worked in public education so far, at least in this town, is neighborhoods taking control of local schools.

Does this mean if Southeast Baton Rouge gets its own school district the schools will immediately get better? No necessarily. As said above, Baker schools are atrocious. That could happen in Southeast Baton Rouge – generally speaking the schools in that area now are nothing special, so to some extent it’s betting on the come that a local school board could do a better job. That’s not a terrible bet, mind you – SEBR has a nice tax base and the potential, at least, to get good community involvement.

And if SEBR were to successfully split off, on a per-student spending basis it’s entirely likely the East Baton Rouge school district will end up with even more money to spend. Its problem, as McCollister hints, is that as breakaway school districts peel off and take with them the burden of educating the kids EBR used to have to educate – leaving the district with a surplus of revenue at the end of the day – it almost never seeks to eliminate the expenditures it no longer needs and plow the surplus back into the classroom. Instead there are the same number of employees as before, but with a smaller percentage of them actually doing something.

That’s called poor management, and it doesn’t just show up in inflated per-student cost numbers but in bad test scores, low morale among teachers, parents and kids and poisonous, ludicrous circuses at school board meetings which motivate even more people to want to leave. Districts like EBR are septic public bodies and won’t likely be saved; the best possible solution might be to break them up into as many small pieces as possible in addition to having available a layer of school choice initiatives like those included in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package recently passed into law.

And while BRAC’s opposition certainly seems well-meaning, it’s questionable on another basis. They do have a point that a Southeast Baton Rouge district needs some study, but that study might well be best done on the question of how to implement its formation, and what’s more, shouldn’t the study inform BRAC’s position rather than the other way around? By announcing opposition to the bill without knowing the results of the study which they say is needed to determine whether an SEBR district is a good idea, BRAC is feeding an already-popular narrative (one which they vigorously deny) that they’re a paid lapdog for Mayor-President Kip Holden thanks to a $450,000 per year economic development contract the organization has with the city. What if Richardson’s survey says an SEBR school district is a great idea? Does BRAC, having taken a position in favor of killing the bill putting it on the ballot, then apologize and hustle to reconstitute the movement in favor of creating it after it’s dead?

It just seems like a fight BRAC didn’t need to involve itself in. Either the bill will die before final passage, or it will go in front of the voters this fall with lots of opportunity to study and analyze it – and BRAC’s position would be far more informed, thanks to Richardson’s work, if and when it did choose to announce one.

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