Carter key sponsor of boarding school for troubled students _lowres

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge 

Advocate file photo by Bill Feig

Louisiana’s first public boarding school for troubled students statewide is nearing completion in Baton Rouge.

And it is all happening because Gov. John Bel Edwards overrode the pleas of key supporters and signed a bill to launch the school.

The measure, House Bill 887, will pave the way for a highly-praised charter school -- THRIVE Charter Academy -- to be converted into an independent school for students in grades 6-12.

Backers say the school will offer a lifeline to students who are homeless, children of parents with addictions and those with a history of truancy and other problems.

“We provide a lifesaving service in many places,” said Sarah Broome, founder of the school and a poltical novice who almost singlehandedly pushed the bill through the Legislature with little notice.

The bill not only flew below the radar during the 2016 regular session.

It won final House approval 88-5 and passed the Senate 32-0, lopsided margins for any legislation.

But what sparked attention at the State Capitol was the fact Edwards signed the bill despite heavy criticism of the measure from some of his key allies.

Officials of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators -- both teacher unions and stalwart backers of the governor -- asked Edwards to veto the bill.

The Louisiana School Boards Association, which is usually aligned with the governor on key education issues, opposed it throughout the legislative process.

Instead, Ewards sided with supporters of the bill, including Lane Grigsby, --- of Cajun Industries and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

One of the criticisms is that authorizing a new, independent state schools makes no sense in the midst of a historic state budget crisis.

Public schools are bracing for their first cut in state aid in decades.

“It is a fiscal issue,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the LSBA.

“When you are $24 million short to maintain the same level of funding for K-12 it is a stretch to ask that a new state school be created,” Richard said.

Asked if the governor wanted to comment, press secretary Shauna Sanford noted the bill won heavy support in the Legislature, including from the Baton Rouge area legislative delegation.

“Gov. Edwards took a number of viewpoints into consideration but ultimately the opportunity to support at-risk youth outweighed anything else,” Sanford said in an email.

The campus, including a new dormitory for about 180 students, is going up at 2585 Brightside.

What will be classroom space is formerly a Catholic center for deaf students.

The complex is just down the street from the Louisiana School for the Deaf and Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, which like Thrive are among a handful of special state school districts.

THRIVE Charter Academy, which starts its fifth year on Aug. 16, used to lease space at the Family Youth Services Center on Government Street.

It was a parttime boarding school, with students staying from Sunday night until Friday afternoon.

THRIVE will remain a charter school for the 2016-17 school year with about 140 students at its new location.

The indpendent Thrive Academy -- then no longer a charter school -- will be launched for the 2017-18 school year, with fulltime residents once enrollment thresholds reach certain levels.

The long-range goal is 350 students.

The new state law is aimed at what the state calls “at risk” students -- shorthand for those from troubled backgrounds.

The list includes children who are eligible for health benefits under Medicaid; those in foster care through the state and students referred to the school by teachers or counselors.

“Traditionally speaking most of our kids are seriously underperforming,” Broome said.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the bill, was blunter.

Without schools like Thrive, he said, students on the edge are headed for prison other problems.

Even critics of the legislation concede the THRIVE has had an impact.

After just two years of operation the school was among the highest-performing public middle schools in Baton Rouge.

It got a “C’ rating from the state in 2015, which is considered respectable in light of the school’s mission.

Opponents of the bill said the venture needed more vetting.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said the law includes a “laundry list” of reasons for children to qualify for Thrive.

“We really think this bill is setting a pretty dangerous precedent,” Meaux said.

“It is going to allow schools, whether they are charter or part of school districts, to apply for independent school status.”

Les Landon, a spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the board that will oversee the school is topheavy with political appointees.

That nine-member panel includes state Superintendent of Education John White or his designee; East Baton Rouge Parish School District Superintendent Warren Drake; the chairman and chairwoman of the Senate and House education committees a panelist named by the governor and East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore Jr.

Students will be financed through the Minimum Foundation Program, like those in both traditional and charter schools.

Broome said $2 million was raised in private donations and $1.5 million was raised from the state for capital outlay, and possibly more.

Another $6.7 million is bank debt was incurred by the Thrive Foundation.

One reason the bill breezed through the Legislature is that it sparked little attention, including oppponents who would have mobilized.

“I have nothing but effusive praise for both the governor and the Legislature.” Broome said. “They really stood up for us.”

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter,@Will Sentell.