The Strange Case Of SB 636, And Its Effect On St. George

Yesterday, amid a cacophonous cheer from East Baton Rouge Superintendent of Schools Bernard Taylor and his allies, SB 636 died in a lopsided 61-30 vote in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

The bill, authored by Sen. Bodi White (R-Central) and backed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, would have instituted a number of reforms aimed at shaking up the flagging EBR school system – most notably giving a lot more power to school principals at the expense of the district office.

But the system saddled up a bunch of its parents and fought the bill tooth and nail. And won.

The legislation is fiercely opposed by the school system and its supporters. They say that principals don’t want the autonomy that the bill provides, and that they don’t have the training or desire to do things like manage transportation or food services contracts.

Though the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, which formally opposed the bill by adopting a resolution against it, surely saw the bill’s defeat as a victory, the statement issued after the vote attempted to harness the good will of those who drafted the legislation to work with them to improve schools.

“By working together as a community, we have the opportunity now to galvanize the focus on student achievement,” the statement said. The district, too, would consider incorporating “certain provisions” of the bill regarding principal autonomy, parent and community empowerment into their own plans to “transform the system.”

BRAC said in a statement after the vote that the organization would not give up its efforts to improving the district, despite the proposal’s defeat. “The community faces a crisis of confidence in the status quo of East Baton Rouge public education,” BRAC president and CEO Adam Knapp said. “It remains the pressing issue we face and one that must bring this whole community together for urgent action and change.”

Though efforts were made earlier in the session to get most — if not all — Baton Rouge area lawmakers on board with the bill, the divide among Capital City delegates ultimately split along party and racial lines. Reps. Smith, Regina Barrow and Ted James, all black Democrats from Baton Rouge, spoke against the bill. Reps. Steve Carter and Franklin Foil, both white Republicans from Baton Rouge, spoke in support of it as Carter pitched the legislation at the podium.

The bill drafting process failed to bring enough educators and parents to the table, Smith and James argued. And opposition from the school board, superintendent and about 15 parent-teachers groups made it clear legislators shouldn’t interfere.

Knapp also said this…

Knapp’s gave one suggestion for change when he asked parents and citizens “to be thoughtful in their choices of school board members during the upcoming election.” Knapp cautioned, too, that the public “clamoring” for better schools — possibly a reference to St. George supporters — would continue to do so.

Right. St. George.

It must be understood that the BRAC education reform bill was almost an explicit attempt to defuse the St. George incorporation effort on behalf of the city’s downtown elite. The bill was touted as an effort to say “Look, see? We’re working on the lousy schools, and if you’ll give us some time to let these reforms take hold you’ll see results.”

The answer to which was that those reforms were hopeless, that the schools in the parish are the way they are because the people who run those schools want them that way, and that the system is too fundamentally dysfunctional and too fundamentally captive of the people who made it dysfunctional in the first place to be substantially improved by moving a few pieces around.

Yesterday BRAC lost that argument. Yesterday the question of schools in East Baton Rouge and how they’ll ever be reformed was settled.

You’ve got to incorporate St. George if you’re going to improve any schools in East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s not really possible to fix all the schools in the parish; what can be done is to fix some of them. To chip away at the corrupt and dysfunctional system and lessen the negative effect it can have on the kids in the parish.

Lionel Rainey, the St. George spokesman, put it pretty well…

“The status quo has a strangle hold on public education in this parish and it would now seem that St. George is the only thing that can release their grip. Senate Bill 636 was a baby step in the direction of reforming the failed East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System and it was defeated by a swarm of lobbyists, unions, magnet parents and special interest groups.”

Bear in mind that the bill wouldn’t exactly set the world on fire. It wouldn’t have instituted neighborhood schools or increased choice for parents in the parish, and it wouldn’t have put a stop to the ridiculous practice of busing kids all over the parish at 5:30 in the morning. As Woody Jenkins noted yesterday on Facebook…

The most important thing to know about SB 636 is that it is blatantly unconstitutional. Art 3 Section 12(A)(8) of the Louisiana Constitution provides that the legislature shall not pass a local or special law to regulate the management of a particular parish or city public school system. But that’s exactly what SB 636 would do — It is a local bill that would create a new management system for the schools in one parish only.

It’s also worth noting that school performance in Baton Rouge isn’t getting better as is. It’s getting worse. EBR scores on the LEAP test stayed flat at 62 percent of the students passing this year, and Taylor chalked that up to the test getting harder.

Except those numbers are flat despite the fact that some of the schools that were part of the mix last year have been taken over by the Recovery School District and are no longer part of the EBR system. With the failing schools the RSD has taken over added, that 62 percent number drops.

It’s a bad school system which is getting worse, and the people invested in it are fighting any efforts to change it.

Meanwhile, Lane Grigsby, the founder and CEO of Cajun Industries noted for his political activism, is actively searching for reform-minded folks willing to run for the EBR school board and unseat some of the status quo operators therein.

Here’s another interesting dynamic – with the advancement of SB 61, the bill which enables parents in failing schools to put their kids in better public schools across district lines, and its probable passage, it might well be that a St. George school system which has fully built itself out and has surplus school space (such will definitely not be the case upon incorporation, but it might be in 5-10 years) could be a vehicle for a lot of parents in Baton Rouge to get decent public school education without having to move to St. George. And since under SB 61 the money would follow the student, St. George wouldn’t be disincentivized to do just that.

That’s speculative, of course, and it implies a lot of goodwill on the part of the St. George folks to provide such school space which might well not exist. After all, there is certainly no such goodwill on the part of the Baton Rouge power elite to St. George.

We can say this not just because Metro Councilman John Delgado, the worst Republican elected official in Louisiana, calls the St. George organizers and advocates “terrorists” and “the Taliban.” We can say it because of something else which happened yesterday.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden started visiting the Senate this week, after a Senate committee redirected $100,000 from a parish community improvement fund to the St. George Fire Department for hazardous material training and equipment. Holden was in the chamber Wednesday, talking to former colleagues.

Soon, state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, was at the podium on the Senate floor, asking to nix the $100,000 for the St. George Fire Department. Broome also fought efforts to set up a municipal framework this session for a city of St. George. She said her opposition Wednesday stemmed from the redirection not being allowable.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, battled back, protesting that he just wanted to help a fire department that is in a jam. White said the city-parish annexed the Mall of Louisiana, taking millions of dollars in revenue from a potential city of St. George.

“All I did was help the Fire Department,” he said.

The Senate sided with White, keeping the $100,000 intact for the St. George Fire Department.

Broome is the likely favorite as the next mayor-president in East Baton Rouge Parish. Kip Holden is the current mayor-president in East Baton Rouge Parish. The community improvement fund White wanted to use to fund St. George Fire with has $5.6 million per year flowing through it. And Holden spent two whole days at the Legislature this week lobbying against that money going to that fire department.

If that doesn’t look like a “F%&# those people” attitude, nothing does.

A few years from now, that attitude is probably going to have to change. There is little argument left against the St. George incorporation, and mere days or weeks before the St. George petition is turned in and put on the November ballot.

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