Tensions between a group of parents at an arts-focused Baton Rouge magnet school and their new principal have grown in recent weeks at what these parents see as the new leadership’s attempt to silence them and their concerns about the direction of the school.
Baton Rouge Center for the Visual and Performing Arts has seen recurring conflict for more than a year, starting with a proposal, later shelved, to cut the school’s visual arts teacher position.
Conflict renewed in January when Myra Jordan was made principal of the popular elementary school. She was reassigned to the A-rated BRCVPA from Howell Park Elementary, an F-rated school. East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor visited the school twice to try to quell parent concerns about the new principal’s past record and her unfamiliarity with the school’s approach to the arts.
The latest flashpoint is a battle for control of the school’s parent-teacher organization.
Each year, the PTO holds end-of-the-school-year elections for three of its four officers. Unlike past elections, this year’s will be competitive, with three parents seeking to unseat the current PTO leadership, which has expressed public support for the new principal.
For weeks, though, it wasn’t clear if elections would occur at all.
On April 14, without explanation, Jordan canceled “until further notice” all scheduled meetings with parents for the rest of the school year. That included the May PTO meeting where officer elections had been scheduled.
Jordan declined to be interviewed for this story, only emailing a copy of the school’s monthly newsletter, and urged reporting on “many wonderful things that are continuing to occur daily at BRCVPA.”
But in conversations with two parents in late April, Jordan justified the cancellation of the PTO meetings on safety grounds, saying the last meeting, on March 24, was marked by disruptive and disrespectful parents. The parents, Niel Cheong and Jessica Eberhard, said Jordan told them that the PTO would elect its officers not in an open meeting but via take-home paper ballots, which both parents objected to.
On Tuesday, three weeks after canceling the meetings, Jordan’s office announced to parents and teachers yet another election plan. On May 19, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., parents will vote on voting machines borrowed from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office.
PTO President Doris Heckert said in email that the PTO plans to meet briefly after voting closes that day to announce the winners but won’t take up any other issues. Heckert said parents unable to make it to school on May 19 can vote by absentee ballot.
“Nominees will be able to submit bios and pictures to be displayed at the school during the election,” Heckert said.
The new election process, however, falls short of what parents on the other side want. These parents in late April floated an online petition urging Jordan to let the PTO have elections at an open meeting so candidates can make their case in person.
“This will allow candidates to introduce themselves to PTO members and allow members to cast ballots in a fair and open election,” the petition reads.
The petition generated 92 signatures, almost all of them from parents of BRCVPA students, and it was delivered to the school on Friday.
Heckert defended the canceling of the meetings. Echoing Jordan, she said the move was necessary due to a “very unfortunate incident” at the March 24 PTO meeting, a meeting The Advocate was barred from attending.
According to several in attendance, a school administrator at one point confronted an upset parent, a confrontation that ended with the parent being forcibly removed from the library by a law enforcement officer who was present.
Parents, the same ones behind the online petition, had urged the PTO to press the School Board to give the school special protections against wholesale cuts in arts staff during future rounds of budget cuts.
Cheong, a longtime parent at the school and also chairwoman of BRCVPA’s School Improvement Team, is one of the leaders of the petition drive. She attended that PTO meeting and recalled nothing that occurred that would warrant canceling meetings. She also said she’s getting frustrated dealing with school leadership.
“I’ve been playing by their rules even though they are making them up as they go,” Cheong said.
School Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who has a daughter who attended BRCVPA, said it should not be a struggle for parents to get their voices heard.
“If that many people are asking for a meeting, even if just a handful of parents are asking for a PTO meeting, they should have one,” Ware-Jackson said Friday.
After hearing from Ware-Jackson and fellow board member Barbara Freiberg, who is also monitoring conflict at the school, Superintendent Taylor commissioned anonymous online surveys of parents and teachers to try to get a better sense of the problems at the school. The surveys wrapped up Friday. The results of the survey will be used to develop questions for follow-up focus groups with BRCVPA parents and teachers.
Taylor told The Advocate that he did not direct Jordan to cancel parent meetings or change how the PTO elects its officers. He said he has since urged Jordan to hold at least one meeting, with security on hand if needed. The superintendent, however, also urged upset parents to work with Jordan and not try to bypass her by taking complaints to board members or sounding off on social media.
“These are adult problems that they can be resolved so it doesn’t affect children,” Taylor said.