Baker school system finds itself at a crossroads; some say the future is rosy while others want to rejoin the East Baton Rouge district _lowres

Photo provided by the Mitchell Family -- Pictured from left, Anthony Mitchell, Blythe Gross (mother), and Michael Mitchell

The city of Baker in the mid-1990s gambled its future prosperity on gaining its freedom from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. Two decades later, it’s looking more and more like that may have been a bad bet.

Fueled by public anger over court-ordered busing and subsequent white flight, Baker leaders in 1995 launched a legal fight to win independence for its school district, a fight that lasted for eight years.

The schools that Baker finally inherited were in disrepair and shadows of their former selves. Once in high demand when it was racially integrated and home to many top students and athletes, Baker schools had rapidly lost students as well as almost all of its racial and economic diversity.

The district now is at a crossroads as it struggles with the threat of a state takeover of one of its schools, faces the loss of its superintendent — the fifth in 12 years — after Ulysses Joseph announced he’s leaving, and at the same time is in the throes of a scandal after an employee was accused of spending district money unchecked for three years.

Some in the district are still believers and see promise in its future, but others regret that the system ever broke away and wonder whether the East Baton Rouge Parish school district would take them back.

When the new school district opened its doors in 2003, instead of drawing from a wide area as Baker schools had before, attendance was restricted to just the children who lived within the 7.9 square miles of the city. Enrollment was down 800 students from 2002.

Meanwhile, many supporters of the movement had moved on to other things. Those left were often sidelined by the political infighting in the new school system, infighting that has raged ever since. Others have been put off by the changed Baker schools, whose racial diversity has all but disappeared and is dominated by families who qualify for federal subsidies such as food stamps.

“It didn’t make sense when we did it,” said Harold Rideau, who was elected mayor in 2004.

Rideau questions whether the two-decade effort can be undone.

“I don’t know if East Baton Rouge would want us back,” the mayor said.

Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps is a 1977 graduate of Baker High. The school then had more than 1,600 students.

“We had almost as many in my senior class as they have in the whole school now,” he said.

Knaps said he’s disappointed with how the city schools have operated, saying the priorities school leaders have set are often misguided, teachers aren’t given the tools to do their jobs well and children don’t come first.

“It’s my home; it’s everything we know,” Knaps said. “It’s heartbreaking, because it was so respected.”

School Board President Elaine Davis, wife of Leroy Davis, the city’s first black mayor who served before Rideau, paints a brighter future than most. She points with pride to the board’s decision in 2011 to shift Bakerfield Elementary and Baker Heights Elementary back to traditional neighborhood schools and convert Park Ridge Elementary into a magnet school that now goes to the eighth grade. Park Ridge, in particular, has improved from a D to a B grade. She see it as a promising sign of rebirth.

“The Baker school district is doing OK, and it’s going to do better,” she said. “I don’t think we should go back to EBR.”

In 2011, all of Baker’s five schools were performing nearly the same: three with F’s and 2 D’s. Now, the range is wider: Two F’s, one D, one C and one B.

After four years as an F school, Bakerfield is now eligible for state takeover, though state officials recently announced they will leave the school in Baker’s control for at least one more year.

School Board member Doris Alexander, now in her third term, questions many decisions made by her colleagues. As a result, she says, she now finds she’s left out of the decision-making process.

“We want to make sure that the people we are employing are doing (their jobs) for the right reasons and are not just people riding it to retirement,” Alexander said.

Once thriving, both the city of Baker and its schools have been passed up by the neighboring communities of Zachary and Central. Those cities followed Baker’s lead but also learned from Baker’s mistakes. The independent Zachary and Central school districts consequently have prospered, adding hundreds of students each year. They have vaulted to the top academically, with statewide rankings of No. 1 and 3 respectively, even as Baker has hovered near the bottom since it started.

Baker school enrollment continues to fall, from 2,250 students in 2003 to 1,450 students now, a decline of 35 percent. Half of Baker’s nearly 3,000 school-age children now attend other public and private schools.

Charter schools are the newest competitors to Baker’s traditional schools. Two of these public schools, both run by private organizations, opened in August within the Baker city limits. They already enroll almost 300 children who live in Baker, a number likely to grow as the schools expand and as new charter schools move in. They also have a competitive advantage over Baker public schools because their charters allow them to enroll children outside of Baker as well.

As Central and Zachary have struggled to handle their economic growth, Baker has struggled to keep its businesses while median household income has lagged far behind its neighbors.

Valedictorian of her class at Baker High in 2001, Kayla DiBenedetto has good memories of her time then. She remembers dedicated teachers and coaches as well as a small but strong racially integrated group of friends from her honor classes.

The school, however, was changing. Court supervision over desegregation continued to drive white flight. By the time she graduated, the once majority-white school was 81 percent black. And not all classes were strong. She realized how unprepared she was when she enrolled at LSU and had to take remedial math. She eventually became a biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

DiBenedetto, now Kayla Kimmel, hates to see what’s become of Baker. She drives up and down Plank Road daily and is distressed by the retail businesses that come and go. What she hears about the schools today has led her to conclude that Baker schools “are not even an option for the children she hopes to have.

“You see a loss of pride for the area, and that’s hard to see,” Kimmel said. “It’s so hard when it’s a place you loved.”

Baker schools still work for some children.

Blythe Gross was living in a high-crime housing project in New Orleans and praying for an escape for her and her four sons when Hurricane Katrina came in 2005 and forced them to evacuate to Baton Rouge. Like hundreds of other former New Orleanians, they soon relocated to Baker. They were attracted by its country feel and its low crime, especially compared to New Orleans. All four of Gross’ boys enrolled in Baker schools.

Her oldest sons, Michael and Anthony Mitchell, fraternal twins, thrived in their new schools, especially at Baker High where they were in the top 10 of their 2013 graduating class. A relatively small school, Baker High gave the boys ample opportunities for leadership. The students also had chances to take courses for college credit, and the Mitchells took advantage of the program.

Michael Mitchell, the valedictorian, is now a sophomore at Penn State University, studying political science, and Anthony Mitchell is at Southern University, studying criminal justice and psychology, and plays in Southern’s acclaimed marching band.

“My trajectory would not be as high if not for Katrina,” Michael Mitchell said. “In terms of my family, it really skyrocketed our opportunities.”

Baker has faced steady turnover in superintendents, school leaders and teachers while Central and Zachary have enjoyed a stable workforce.

Joseph, Baker’s fifth superintendent in a dozen years, announced earlier this month that he is leaving at the end of May, seven months earlier than expected. He said the board was acting too slowly on his recommendations, but he didn’t offer any details.

In response to several emailed questions, Joseph had little more to say. Instead, he listed 11 accomplishments from his four-year tenure, including fixing up some facilities and higher test scores at three of Baker’s five schools.

The board is advertising for his replacement.

Joseph’s departure comes days after Emmitt Whitfield, a district maintenance supervisor, landed in parish prison, accused of going on a three-year, illegal spending spree with district money. The ease with which the alleged theft occurred and the apparent lack of financial controls placed on Whitfield have raised questions about how deep financial mismanagement in Baker schools really runs.

Joseph, who was Whitfield’s direct supervisor, has said he was unaware of what was going on and that the arrest is not connected with him leaving.

Baker school officials said they identified at least 717 items Whitfield bought with a school credit card — including disco globes and a gazebo — with an estimated value of almost $130,000. No one remembers seeing these purchases and they have yet to be located. Whitfield, 47, is facing counts of felony theft and unauthorized use of a credit card.

“They should have just as soon taken all that money and put it in a little bonfire, because (the kids) got nothing out of it,” said Police Chief Knaps, whose office is still investigating.

Knaps said he is still chasing leads and early on enlisted the FBI’s help with the financial inquiry. The federal agency is looking at whether federal education money was misspent, he said.

“I’d also love to see the public come forward,” the chief said. “There’s no way that much merchandise moves without someone knowing where it went.”

Jerry Epperson is a legend in Baker education circles. Principal of Baker High from 1968 to 1987, Epperson served as superintendent of Baker before it opened and then for seven months in 2007. He’s amazed by the Whitfield case.

“I can’t for the life of me see how someone can steal that much money and get away with it,” Epperson said. “A superintendent needs to be meeting with their finance person every day. You can get in a bind quicker than anything when it comes to money.”

Davis said financial controls are being updated and that the school system’s property insurance company is likely to conduct its own investigation.

“We’re doing everything possible to find what happened, how it happened and why, and to make sure it never happens again,” she said.