The push for ISDs
|Failed legislation to create a southeast school district hasn't stymied interest in splitting up East Baton Rouge Parish's public education system.|
A three-month battle for a new school district in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish ended June 1, when the necessary legislation fell short for the second time, meaning it was dead, at least for this year.
“This gives us a window of opportunity to prove that we're serious about change,” says a relieved Barbara Freiberg, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. “I'm excited that we were given this time, and we don't have to spend the next six months [until the public vote] fighting legislation.”
Instead, the board and its newly hired superintendent, Bernard Taylor, can work on what Freiberg hopes will be exciting changes for the fall. Some of the ideas on the table would push authority closer to the schools, which might mollify critics who want to break free from what they consider the wasteful and repressive bureaucracy of the central office.
But parish residents have heard reform talk from past boards and former superintendents, and some of them would like to split up the EBR system. Southeast district organizers say they'll be back next year. At least one separate group in south Baton Rouge has expressed interest in a new district, as have some parents in north Baton Rouge. A state-run “achievement zone” in north Baton Rouge might one day include 20 to 30 schools and serve as a de facto breakaway district.
Freiberg doesn't dismiss the idea that smaller school districts might be the wave of the future. But if the parish decides to go that route, she says, those decisions should be made holistically, not by breaking off one piece at a time.
“If splintering the district is the best thing to do for all of the communities involved, then that's what we should do,” she says. “But at this point, I don't think we have enough information to say that would be a wise decision.”
LSU economist Jim Richardson, with help from Roy Heidelberg, currently a visiting scholar at LSU, has studied the concept of independent school districts in East Baton Rouge. In a 2009 report, they argued the impact of “legacy” costs—primarily retiree health benefits—should be negotiated prior to the creation of any new breakaway districts. While Central, Baker and Zachary were allowed to leave behind their legacy costs when they pulled out, the legislation that would have allowed for the southeast district included provisions for compensating the EBR system, although critics questioned whether the compensation would have been sufficient.
Richardson says it's difficult to come up with independent school districts that make geographic sense without also creating massive racial and income inequalities. Such differences aren't only an issue for a district's tax base; research shows that minority children from poor backgrounds perform better in integrated schools, according to David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
Richardson has examined the possibility of dividing the system into the southeast district, which would have included everything south of Interstate 12, north of Interstate 10 and east of the 10/12 split; a southwest district on the other side of I-10; a Mid City district; and a north Baton Rouge district. The north Baton Rouge district likely would have a mean household income that would be, at best, about half that of the other three districts.
Richardson says the system could be divided into vertical swaths that would be more economically and racially balanced, but that approach wouldn't mesh well with the parish's transportation arteries and established neighborhoods.
“If we're trying to divide things up, we don't really have a lot of choices,” Richardson says. “Or, we could keep it as a big [system] and make some divisions within that big one.”
There's also a third possibility: Break up the system, but set up some of the popular magnet programs, which might not be feasible in small districts, as parishwide charter schools. Perhaps the districts could save money by joining forces on service contracts.
This approach, however, assumes the districts actually want to work with each other. Sheri Morris serves as general counsel for the Central Community School Board and represented Zachary when that city was allowed to form its own system.
She says the drive to create independent districts reflected dissatisfaction, not only with the parish system's poor educational outcomes, but also with the overall management of the system, noting what she describes as the deplorable physical condition of the schools in Zachary and Central when the two communities broke away.
More than half of the students who attend the 10 schools in the southeast area are minorities. But if the East Baton Rouge Parish system stops busing in black children, and if white families in the area embrace a new district and move their kids from private schools, the makeup changes, since only about 23% of the children who live in the area are black.
A further breakup of the system could draw unwelcome attention from the U.S. Department of Justice to a parish that only got out from under a desegregation order in 2003, says parish School Board Vice President Tarvald Smith, an attorney.
“We were granted unitary status for a reason,” he says. If the Legislature allowed for majority white districts that circumvent the spirit of the 2003 decision, Smith says, the state could find itself the target of a new desegregation lawsuit or a revival of the old one.
But Morris says new districts likely could withstand scrutiny, assuming they weren't gerrymandered to exclude certain neighborhoods. She says lawsuit threats against breakaway districts are nothing new, and adds that the current EBR system, where nearly 90% of the students are black, is hardly a model of integration.
System leaders have discussed the possibility of creating four semi-autonomous zones under the larger system's umbrella, based on the idea that schools in south Baton Rouge might have different needs than those in north Baton Rouge. A draft strategic plan envisions school-based budgeting that pushes authority down to the system's principals. The proposals speak to a common complaint that the system uses a one-size-fits-all approach.
Norman Browning, president of Local Schools for Local Children, which pushed for the failed southeast breakaway district, says his group is open to meeting with East Baton Rouge Parish School System officials to discuss plans for the future. But it doesn't sound like he'll be dissuaded from trying again.
“We plan on being right back in front of the Legislature next year with a new, bigger and better plan,” he says. “We don't know what that district's going to look like, or what the plan's going to look like, but we're going to be bigger and better, and we'll win next year.”
comments powered by Disqus
Real estate recap: DPW reorganization recommendations coming … Capital Region home sales post 5% gain in February … WWII bombing range near Hammond at center of new lawsuit
Baton Rouge's new power broker: John Georges
What Families Are Spending on Prom Night