Growing competition from charter schools represents a “fight for our lives,” East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Warren Drake said Saturday as he laid out a series of moves to both cut costs as well as retain and attract students to the state’s second-largest school district.
“We need to become a more efficient operation than we have ever been before,” Drake told parish School Board members during an all-day retreat Saturday. “And that’s in everything we do.”
Drake also made clear during the retreat that he won’t rush to reopen Istrouma High School this fall as originally planned — no board member objected — and that his plans for the north Baton Rouge high school involve either spending less on a new career academy known as Ardendale in the Melrose East neighborhood or downscaling the rebuilding of Park Elementary.
“I don’t think we can open Istrouma halfway, and we have the half the money” needed, Drake said. “You just have to tell us where (the rest) comes from. Does it come from Park or does it come from Ardendale?”
The new career academy would be part of long-planned Ardendale residential development. The school system has set aside $17 million for the project. Park Elementary, 2700 Fuqua St., next to Capitol High School, is slated for a $24 million reconstruction. These projects were approved by voters in spring 2008, when they renewed a 1-cent sales tax.
Istrouma High, however, needs work, too. The north Baton Rouge high school returned to local control Jan. 13, four years after the state took it over for chronic low academic performance. The state closed the high school in May 2014.
Drake has estimated the cost of repairs to Istrouma at up to $15 million, which doesn’t include the cost of any new instructional initiatives.
Saturday’s six-hour retreat was held in the offices of Tech Park U in the Louisiana Technology Park, 7117 Florida Blvd. No votes were taken. It was the second retreat Drake has organized since taking over the school system in June.
Once the sole source of public schools, the school system is now just one of many publicly funded education choices in the capital city.
The biggest and most costly newcomers are charter schools — public schools run by private organizations via short-term contracts, or charters.
In recent years, they have grown steadily, both in the number of schools and their enrollment. Two more were approved in December, over Drake’s fierce protests, to open in the fall.
Catherine Fletcher, chief business operations officer, showed board members a chart laying out school system spending on charter schools, projecting it will nearly double from the $56 million spent in the 2013-14 school year to $102 million in 2019-20.
“That’s the money we have to carve out and set aside before we can spend on anything else,” Fletcher said.
This year, $75.8 million headed to charter schools, and that is expected to climb by $10 million in 2016-17. Fletcher said projections could easily grow if more charter schools are approved or expand more than anticipated.
School officials on Saturday did not provide any estimates of savings from the loss of students to charter schools, though they said they may cut 85 job positions next year, saving about $6.3 million, partly as a response to decreases in enrollment at some schools.
Drake said the state’s charter school law, enacted in the mid-1990s, envisioned charter schools as places to try out innovative approaches to education, things that the traditional public schools couldn’t duplicate.
“I don’t think that is what it is anymore,” he said “It’s just more options.”
Drake also noted that Louisiana charter schools have heretofore focused on educating “at-risk” children living in poverty but said that’s changing, alluding to the plans by Arizona-based BASIS Schools to open two schools in Baton Rouge.
“They want the top of the top (students),” he said. “All bets are off.”
Drake also said he’d like to see changes made to level the playing field and allow more fair competition between charter and traditional public schools.
To overcome, the parish school system needs to step up its game, he said.
“I think parents have a right to select the best option for their children,” he said. “The issue is we need to be that choice.”
Board member Vereta Lee, an outspoken opponent of charter schools, took the critique much further.
“They are robbing these children of a good education,” she said. “It needs to be put out there and said. And if no one else is going to say it, I’m going to say it.”
Drake, however, wouldn’t go there.
“I don’t want it to look like this is a witch hunt,” he said. “I want to it be ‘we have to be better than we have been.’ ”
A lot of Saturday’s retreat focused on Drake’s ideas for improvements.
For instance, he talked about creating attractive themes to serve as draws for every high school, such as possibly having Belaire High School focus on law enforcement and legal studies, while Broadmoor High might be a center for global studies and foreign language immersion. Several high schools are considering adding programs for various careers, including nursing, construction and cooking.
Where the school system focuses its career and technical education offerings depends, though, on what it decides to do with Istrouma High and the planned Ardendale career academy.
Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson said the Ardendale project needs all the money it can get.
“I don’t see us taking a dime from Ardendale and putting it anywhere else,” she said.
Board member Jacqueline Mims, however, said she is against putting all $17 million at Ardendale.
“I, for one, would like to see dollars spread across the district for instructional programming,” she said.