Divided they fall

Divided they fall

The disagreement over a new superintendent for East Baton Rouge Parish schools brings ideological and cultural tensions to the fore.

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Barbara Freiberg, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, has urged everyone involved in local public education to treat the board's debates as honest disagreements between passionate people who just want the best for children.

Freiberg attempted to make her case on Feb. 8, at the end of another long, contentious meeting.

“I would just like to remind the audience that,” she began, her voice choked with emotion, “every person up here cares about the kids …”

Freiberg's last few words were hard to hear. Some people in the audience began shouting her down, and others attempted to shush their neighbors so she could finish. As board member Vereta Lee, several feet to Freiberg's right, shouted, “That's not true,” Freiberg quickly gaveled the meeting to a close.

As the meeting broke up, most board members began to file out, and a group of audience members immediately began collecting signatures for what they said could become a recall effort against the entire board. Freiberg, however, remained in her seat, looking straight ahead.

The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to discuss who might become interim superintendent when John Dilworth steps down after Feb. 24. The board deferred making a decision that night, but not before the familiar ideological and cultural tensions—on the board and in the community—reared their heads once again.

The next day, a group of parents and businesspeople based in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish announced their desire to carve out their own school district. The timing apparently was a coincidence, but proponents of the idea were quick to point to the perceived chaos surrounding the board to justify their position.

Big bad wolf

On the afternoon of Feb. 8, Samuel King, superintendent of Rockdale County Public Schools in the Atlanta suburbs, withdrew his name from consideration for the same position in East Baton Rouge.

King was the only surviving finalist after a volatile meeting on Jan. 25, when three other candidates, including Herman Brister, the system's chief academic officer, were eliminated. During the lengthy executive session, two parents who have been following the process were chatting when Adam Knapp, president/CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, walked by.

The parents essentially had this conversation:

“Who's that?” the woman asked.

“That's the head of the chamber,” said the man, who, at a previous school board meeting, had taken issue with a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member for, in his view, allowing Gov. Bobby Jindal to dictate BESE's choice for state superintendent, John White.

“What do they have to do with the school board?” the woman asked.

“They're for charters,” he said.

“Ohhh,” she said.

To some people, the growing school-choice movement playing out at the state and national levels represents a threat to traditional public schools, an effort to divert taxpayer money away from struggling urban schools into private schools and for-profit charters. And from the viewpoint of some of those critics, BRAC is aligned with Jindal and White.

During the Feb. 8 meeting, school board Vice President Tarvald Smith implied that someone in Baton Rouge had convinced King to withdraw, making an oblique reference to the “elephants in the room.”

“Some board members are getting their marching orders from the chamber of commerce,” Smith said in a subsequent interview. “There is a feeling of mistrust out there. … There is a belief in the African-American community that the chamber is trying to destroy the school system.”

The chamber's political action committee backed five of the six members who constitute the 11-member board's majority; those six members have opposed Brister's bid to become superintendent. Brister is a favorite among some educators and some members of the black community, though he has his share of detractors as well.

“Oftentimes, we hear about the chamber as if they're the big bad wolf,” says Lamont Cole, the former president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP and a Brister supporter. “There has to be a common enemy for some. For some, the common enemy is the Baton Rouge chamber. For some, the common enemy is Brister. And nobody wins.”

High expectations

Low performance scores, and the perception of local schools' poor performance, are considered hurdles to economic development. Many professionals—black and white—don't consider public schools a viable option for their children. The scores have been rising, but not fast enough for some observers and stakeholders.

“We've spent a long time trying to make what's in place work,” BESE member Chas Roemer says. “At [the current] pace of improvement, we'll have more generations of children who aren't educated, who can't read and write when they get to sixth grade. Now, I applaud the improvement, and there has been some. But the improvement needs to be more drastic, and it needs to happen more quickly.”

BRAC has not officially supported or opposed any candidate for superintendent, although chamber donors and officials—like everyone else—are free to express their opinions to school board members. Knapp says BRAC has no hidden agenda, wishing only to see rapid improvement in student outcomes.

Knapp acknowledges that the high poverty rate among local public school students makes educators' jobs more difficult. But with the right leader, he says, the system could achieve better results.

“We have extremely high expectations for what can be achieved for all kids in this district,” Knapp says. “If we have motives that are perceived as negative or threatening, [our objectives] are clear and plain.”

Tricia Sanchez, daughter of businessman and political activist Lane Grigsby, led Students First, which worked against every incumbent in the 2010 school board election. She says members of the business community seem prepared to invest money in local schools, adding that businesspeople don't see many avenues for collaboration.

“I don't see why it would be bad to have the schools be sponsored and supported by private companies,” she says. “That's not to say they should govern [the schools] and run them. But I do think they want to be involved and have a voice in the process.”

Sanchez says the idea that BRAC gives marching orders is a misconception promoted by people opposed to change. Board member Connie Bernard, for example, often votes with members who were backed by the chamber's FuturePAC, even though the PAC didn't donate to her campaign. Suggestions that Grigsby is pulling the strings also have been made publicly, including at a Feb. 13 community forum attended by four board members.

“That is not at all true,” Sanchez says. “He has pushed for change, and for new people to be in there,” without targeting Brister or anyone else personally.

She says elevating an internal candidate such as Brister to the superintendent's chair, however, could make it seem to some observers that the board “would like to continue along the same vein that they have for the past 25 years, which was not a very collaborative environment.”

Breaking away

South Baton Rouge residents have long talked about following the lead of Baker, Central and Zachary, and breaking away from East Baton Rouge Parish's public school system. On Feb. 9, a Woodlawn-based group calling itself Local Schools for Local Children announced its intention to seek a new district that would encompass the portion of the parish that lies south of Interstate 12, north of Interstate 10 and east of the 10/12 split.

State Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican, has asked legislative staff to draft a bill creating the district. School districts are set in the state constitution; so the bill would have to pass both houses by a two-thirds majority, then be approved by voters statewide and in East Baton Rouge Parish, and voters in the proposed area would have to approve the taxing district.

“They've thought about it and tried to figure out if it would work in their area for years,” White says. “The pace has picked up over the past year, and it doesn't help when you can't choose a superintendent and can't get together on important issues.”

White helped establish the Central Community School System, which opened in 2007. He says the southeast East Baton Rouge group is not interested in establishing a new city, as Central did.

Craig Harvey, an associate professor for LSU, is part of a separate group that also has discussed creating a breakaway district. Harvey says he would like to see a statewide movement to allow for independent school districts. He says the recent superintendent search—and what he sees as a lack of professionalism by some East Baton Rouge school board members—indicates the parish system “is ready to implode” and that a different model is needed.

School board member Craig Freeman says a smaller district might not be able to provide the same opportunities for exceptional and special-needs students as the current system. If there is a breakaway district, he hopes organizers aren't allowed to shirk the associated legacy costs.

“The biggest complaint I have about Zachary, Central and Baker is not that they left. Good luck to them,” Freeman says. “But they left the retirement costs of the teachers that taught there for us. It's both patently unfair and a horrible burden to leave with the [parish] school system.”

For the board, the task has become finding a superintendent who can rally the community together before the entire system splits apart at the seams and convince the state that there's a plan in place to turn around struggling schools that could potentially be taken over.

“If you get a superintendent who inspires the kind of confidence that we need,” Freeman says, “then I think things change.”

A unique opportunity

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is far from unique in having deep divisions between members, and they're certainly not the only school board that sometimes holds contentious meetings. The board also didn't create the longstanding class and racial distrust that adds fuel to its conflicts.

“There's obvious racial tension going on that, as a community, we need to bring to a resolution,” says Eric Lewis, state director of the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options. “Until adults decide that they want to cooperate and collaborate, we're not going to make much progress in this school district.”

Lewis worries the negativity might hinder the district's ability to land a top-flight superintendent. But while Freiberg says the dissension might dissuade some prospects, others perhaps have dealt with it themselves and understand that it comes with the territory.

“There are good candidates,” she says, “and we will get one of them.”

Freeman says the myriad voices involved in the first round of the superintendent search might have made the decision more difficult.

“If it's people from the community that want one thing, if it's the chamber that wants something else, if the state is signaling something else, it gets to be tough to figure out what the community wants,” Freeman says. “Bodi White's bill didn't help. We're trying to figure out what the heck we can do, so we don't have a system that's half its size this time next year.”

Whoever comes in will face challenges, he says, but that also makes the job a unique opportunity.

“If you can come in and tame this wild beast, you can do anything, anywhere,” he says.

Freiberg remains deeply disappointed that so many people are taking the search for the next system leader personally, but believes the experience has made her a better leader.

“I'm beat up,” she says, with a laugh. “But that doesn't mean I'm not stronger.”

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