Both candidates in the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board District 7 election say community buy-in to public schools is essential to address educational choices for families, improve education for students and even the looming possibility of a breakaway St. George school district.
However, both candidates have a slightly different approach to how they’d like to see that happen.
Incumbent Barbara Freiberg, a Republican, was a classroom teacher for 27 years, worked 10 years as the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education K-12 education administrator and five years with the LSU Transition to Teaching program. She has served as a School Board member for one term, elected in 2010.
“There are a lot of things we’ve done that I would like to see through,” she said.
Anthony Nelson, a Democrat, said he is running for the School Board because of his experience within the public school system and involvement in politics.
“I grew up in north Baton Rouge as a poor kid in the school system,” Nelson said.
Now, he said, his experience in the school system can help families find the choices they feel are lacking right now for their children.
“One reason I really wanted to run is residents feel they have no options. It’s either charter schools or failing schools,” Nelson said.
So how do you get families and the community involved in schools when there are people who may not have children there and other parents who had such a bad time in school themselves?
“Invite them,” Nelson said. “It’s getting the community to actually come into the schools and see the opportunities we have.”
Parents want to be involved in the conversation on how the schools are run, not just given the chance to comment on proposals that have already been developed, he said.
“It’s inviting them to be a part of the district. That’s something we haven’t done,” Nelson said.
That involvement includes businesses and industries in an effort to offer more technical education opportunities for students.
“We have to recognize not all students will go to college,” he said.
Freiberg also believes better community involvement is the way to make schools and the district stronger. She envisions a more formal way to do it through the formation of school councils to improve local management of schools.
“The council would have some legitimate control over what happens in the school,” she said.
This council would have input into discipline issues, how the budget is spent, who is hired and what extracurricular activities would be offered.
“If people have skin in the game, so to speak, they feel more involved and more accountable for what happens,” Freiberg said. “I just think that there’s got to be a way for people to have input in their schools.”
That type of public input could help address issues that have led organizers of the proposed city of St. George to try to break away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, she said.
“I think we need to try to find ways to sit down with them,” Freiberg said.
She said the school system leadership has not been aggressive in pursuing a way to work out issues that have led to the current breakaway effort. If the new school district is created in St. George, she said, it would diminish the ability of the school system to provide programs currently offered, like magnet schools.
Nelson said it’s his understanding that the organizers for St. George weren’t interested in talking.
“They were, from the very beginning, not receptive to working with the school district,” he said. “Simply breaking away from the school district is not an answer.”
Instead, Nelson said, the people interested in a new school district and the leadership of the East Baton Rouge school system need to work harder together to address concerns.
“You’re not only taking resources and money from the district but also facilities and shuffling students around,” he said.
Part of the answer, Freiberg said, is to give more local control to the school.
One effort in the last legislative session was headed up by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and would have allowed principals who were rated as “highly effective” to take over a number of responsibilities in the school.
Those additional responsibilities would include designing instruction plans, control over the budget, and hiring and firing of staff.
Freiberg said the bill did have some problems, but it would have given principals much more autonomy to run their schools.
Bill supporters said it would allow principals more control over the school design and operation. Critics said there was no need for the bill, and it was opposed by a number of groups, including the Louisiana Association of School Principals.
“I was surprised how adamant they were; they didn’t want the bill,” Freiberg said.
Nelson said after speaking with a number of principals, they didn’t want it because they wanted to run their schools without the additional tasks of setting up contracts and other authorities outlined in the bill.
Freiberg said it would let the schools operate more on a charter-school basis with local control over how the individual schools are run.
Both candidates agree that although charter schools are listed as a choice for students, they haven’t fulfilled a need for a better education in most cases.
Charter schools that have been approved by the school system have their place, Nelson said, but state-authorized school charters haven’t proven to be effective.
“I don’t think any child should be educated by a school that has no track record of success,” he said.
Freiberg said students need options and had hoped the charter schools could fulfill a part of that role.
“I had hoped those charters would have been very good. None have proven to be,” she said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.