The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is poised to spend more than $30 million than it expects to take in next year, and once again, charter schools are getting much of the blame for the rising costs.
Despite this imbalance, a handful of School Board members are pressing to spend still more, in particular to bring teachers back to the pay level they enjoyed before intermittent salary freezes that began in 2010.
The School Board on Thursday unanimously rejected four applicants seeking to start Type 1 charter schools in the parish. Some of the applicants are expected to appeal to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to operate as a Type 2 charter under that agency’s authority. BESE would have until Oct. 14 to rule on any appeals.
Thursday also was the first public hearing the School Board has held on its general operating budget, which accounts for about 80 percent of all spending in the school system.
The board plans to vote on the budget when it meets again June 18.
The budget and charter schools have been intertwined for years, and the biggest cost driver many years has been charter schools.
For fiscal year 2015-16, about $11.7 million more is being set aside to pay for new and expanding charter schools, some connected with the school system, some independent. Three new charter schools are slated to open in August, and others continue to expand. Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via contracts.
Former School Board member Noel Hammatt warned his former colleagues Thursday that charter schools are a financial drain, all costs and no gain, something auditors have attested to through the years. Approving more could be disastrous, he said.
“You will rapidly reach the point where you cannot function as a district,” Hammatt said.
Matt Diez, president of the parent-teacher organization at BR FLAIM, a foreign language immersion magnet school, said his school’s budget is being cut for a second year in a row, and the reason he’s given each year is because of charter school expansion.
Yet, he said, most of the charter schools in Baton Rouge have earned D and F letter grades from the state.
“If my school has to have its pocket picked, it better be for something really good,” Diez said.
Several board members, even a few who were sympathetic to the latest charter school applicants, said they want to give incoming Superintendent Warren Drake an opportunity to improve parish schools before bringing in new charters.
“In this time of transition, we need to be very selective before we enter into any partnerships,” board member Mark Bellue said.
Outside evaluator Kimberly Williams recommended rejecting all four.
The proposal for Laurel Oaks Charter School came closest to getting Williams’ nod. She said she ultimately decided that another school focusing on grades kindergarten to eight is not innovative enough.
“Was the school going to be doing something inherently different from what we’re offering? And we said ‘no’ to that,” Williams said.
Shafeeq Shamsid-Deen Jr., Laurel Oaks’ founder, noted his school has uncommon elements, including two teachers in every classroom.
He said he dismissed people who told him East Baton Rouge Parish would never agree to approve his charter. He said he will continue to reach out to the school system.
Another applicant, Apex Collegiate Academy, brought many supporters to Thursday’s meeting, to no avail.
Kathryn Rice, a board member for Apex, and the founder of another new charter school, Baton Rouge College Prep, said Apex is bringing something new to town.
“A mission of 100 percent of students being college bound in north Baton Rouge is indeed unique,” said Rice, adding that the school is shooting to have every student earn a 23 on the ACT college placement exam.
Belinda Davis, president of the group One Community, One School District, urged the board to focus on plans and experience, not on promises.
She noted that Apex’s ACT goal is higher than the national average for the ACT and that only 10 percent of low-income children earn a 23 or above on that test.
“We have had a lot of charter schools come before that have lofty goals, and they have not met their goals,” Davis said.
In other action, the board on Thursday:
— Adopted unanimously 10 performance targets for Drake. The new superintendent could earn up to $2,000 for each target achieved and no more than $20,000 total, in addition to his $225,000 annual salary approved May 7. The top target, improving student achievement, requires the school system to meet at least four out of seven sub-targets, ranging from increasing the percentage of children who score 18 or above on the ACT to reducing the number of students who are truant.
— Rejected unanimously a proposal to close White Hills Elementary unless the small school can enroll 100 students by June 30 in addition to the 188 it currently has. Drake is asking the School Board to keep the school for one more year to give it a better chance to grow its enrollment.
— Recommended opening new magnet programs this fall at both Capitol and Southeast middle schools. Capitol’s would focus on computer game design and animation, while Southeast’s would focus on digital arts and technology. A related proposal would add gifted-and-talented services, creating a Great Scholars Academy at Capitol Middle, but only within Capitol’s attendance zone, which the board expanded May 21.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified the new magnet programs recommended for Capitol and Southeast middle schools. The Advocate regrets the error.