As the fight over St. George shifts to the courts, many local leaders are pinning their hopes on new East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake to reverse the discontent over the schools that led to the push to create a new city with an independent school system.
They’re hoping the 63-year-old Drake will be able to heal the ugly divide the fight has created across the parish.
Drake isn’t comfortable with the savior role some have cast him in, though. Instead, he presents himself and the agenda he will pursue as the catalyst for natural, positive change.
Drake said he expects that by improving all schools in the parish, he will make southeast Baton Rouge residents less likely in the future to support a new city of St. George or an independent school district.
“I don’t see myself as that savior,” Drake said. “I think that will happen naturally by the things we do over and over and over again to get better.”
Drake said he’s already making changes that he expects will bring noticeable improvement this coming school year.
“If there’s another time to vote, people will take a look at their schools and say, ‘This is what we’ve been looking for,’ ” Drake said.
Drake is taking over Louisiana’s second-largest school district at the same time as the failure of the St. George petition, as determined by the Registrar of Voters Office. For many city leaders, his arrival couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
The emotional and drawn-out effort to create a new city was born out of two failed attempts in the state Legislature to create a new school system. Frustrated parents in the southeast part of the parish said they were tired of spending money sending their kids to private schools because of inadequacies with the public school system. But legislators responded that they couldn’t be a school system because they are not a true city.
At that point, the advocates launched a petition effort to bring a city proposal to the voters, with the idea that a school system could soon follow.
After the registrar announced the petition failed, Mayor-President Kip Holden said in an interview that it was time to give the new superintendent a chance to do his job.
“He’s showing a good-faith effort not only to the people of St. George but every student in public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, showing that we will be working together,” Holden said.
Echoing Holden, M.E. Cormier, a leader of anti-St. George group Better Together, said it’s time to refocus the efforts on improving schools.
“We look forward to collaborating with him and the St. George supporters to improve the public education for every child,” she said. “Everyone’s priority has always been education, and we’d like to refocus our efforts away from the divisive petition and back to that priority.”
Metro Councilman John Delgado, one of the more vocal opponents of the proposed city effort, said Drake’s role is critical to unifying divided parents and residents and “bringing back the people who have felt that the school system could not educate their kids.”
Like many, Delgado places great significance on Drake’s role as the founding superintendent for the top-ranked Zachary school district, a job he held for 10 years.
Zachary is not only a breakaway school district but a model for other breakaway school districts such as Central. Delgado said that makes Drake uniquely qualified to appeal to St. George proponents.
“I think if you asked those people who the ideal superintendent would be, they would tell you Warren Drake,” Delgado said.
For now, St. George supporters aren’t willing to go there, instead keeping their focus on creating an independent school system and new city.
Lionel Rainey, spokesman for St. George, said there is nothing that could realistically be done or conceded at this point to deter their efforts.
“We would be more than happy to sit down with Superintendent Drake,” Rainey said. “We hope to develop a good relationship with him, as our school systems will be side by side in the same parish.”
The efforts for the city and school system are in limbo, potentially dead, because the Registrar of Voters Office determined that a 21-month signature gathering effort to put the new city on a ballot came up short the required signatures. St. George has since sued to overturn the decision, arguing that the Registrar of Voters Office erred in its process.
Even if the court challenge is unsuccessful, the group vows to continue its efforts for years to come.
“This isn’t going away,” Rainey said.
The St. George movement and the potential for another attempt at a breakaway school system are not urgent issues for Drake. His view is that the school system should stay together and that by improving the entire system, he will eliminate the desire to leave.
But unlike many other past opponents of the independent school system, Drake said he’s not as concerned about the financial problems that a St. George school district would mean for the school system and believes East Baton Rouge Parish schools could survive in the event the separation happened.
“I think the city of Baton Rouge would probably have a bigger problem with it than the school system,” he said.
However, Drake expressed concern more about dividing what he thinks should remain a united community.
“I don’t want them to break away,” he said, “because we’re going to give them what they want, and I think, this year, we’re going to prove that.”
Drake’s three-year contract began Wednesday, but he’s been working first as a consultant and then as acting superintendent since early May.
Before heading to Zachary in 2002, Drake spent much of his career in East Baton Rouge Parish, including six years as principal of Tara High.
While he avoids the “savior” label, Drake makes clear he thinks he’s up to the job, and his track record of success should give residents some assurance. He trumpets his time at Tara, saying the school added 600 students during his time there, including a number of winners of National Merit Scholarships, and increased its academic performance to become one of the best high schools in the school system.
And while Zachary already had good schools when he arrived in 2002, Drake said the school district would have been in 11th place in the state then. By 2005, when it received its first district performance score, Zachary had vaulted to No. 1 and has stayed there since.
One item on Drake’s long to-do list is to meet with organizers of the St. George petition. He said he’s reached out to them, but the two parties are still settling on a date to meet.
Drake said he’s willing to consider making special moves to help out specific schools and communities, but that’s nothing he won’t also do for other parts of the parish
“It may look like they’re getting special concessions,” he said, “but I’m giving the same concessions everywhere else.”
Along those lines, Drake said he’s willing to look again at past proposals to give southeast residents more autonomy and say in their schools. These include creating regional zones — Drake’s predecessor Bernard Taylor called them “families of schools” — that might be led by deputy superintendents, as well community councils to offer input to principals.
“I don’t know if we’re going to do that, but I’m going to look at it carefully to see if it would be a benefit,” he said.
Unlike Zachary, the southeast area already has newer buildings, including three schools built in the past decade, while the buildings Drake inherited in Zachary in 2002 were “in deplorable condition.” Drake, however, acknowledged that popular schools in that area have space issues that will need to be addressed.
To get primed on the issues in southeast Baton Rouge, Drake said he recently met with a few parents in that section of Baton Rouge.
“They want safe schools, with highly effective programs where kids can be ready for college,” Drake said.
Safety, or, more accurately, changing perceptions that schools are unsafe, is a priority for the new superintendent, though he acknowledges he’s still learning Baton Rouge’s precise problems on that front.
He said he expects his school leaders to “protect the learning environment in the classroom.” That runs the gamut from supporting teachers in whatever way they need to training them to be better classroom managers and eliminating unnecessary classroom interruptions that can give rise to student discipline problems.
In a similar vein, Drake wants to eliminate the school system’s bus transfer point at North Sherwood Forest Drive near Choctaw Drive, which has been a flash point for student misbehavior in recent years. He said less than a tenth of the children in the school system change buses at that location each day and it isn’t worth its reputation as an unsafe place.
Another area of quick improvement is facilities. Drake said most residents judge schools on how they look and too many East Baton Rouge schools don’t measure up. Consequently, he said he’s been on school principals, and on Aramark, the private company that oversees school building and ground maintenance, to take ownership of their buildings.
“Why don’t you own that?” he asked. “Am I the only that sees that?”
Drake said he worked in a lot of jobs through the years, many of them physical labor jobs, and it gives him a different perspective.
“I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life,” he said. “I’m willing to mop the floor, pick up paper, mow the grass. That’s ownership.”
Baton Rouge state Rep. Ted James, who has fought St. George and the independent school system in the state Legislature, said he recently sat down for a meeting with Drake to discuss his plans.
James said he agrees with Drake’s philosophy that he should focus on improving all schools and not just those on “that side of the parish.”
“He’s going to have to be a unifier,” James said. “And he’s going to have to get out there and redefine the narrative. The opposition has been very loud about criticizing the school system, and he’ll be able to highlight the good about what’s going on.”
James said he thinks most of the loudest voices behind the new city and school system weren’t coming from actual parents with school-age students. So he said he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s nothing Drake can do to stop the breakaway efforts from bubbling back up.
“They are so far out and have so much put into this thing that it’s all or nothing for them,” he said. “But a large percentage of the folks in the area will trust him and our School Board to make the right decisions.”