Warren Drake, the favorite to become the next East Baton Rouge Parish schools superintendent, has left a long trail of professional admirers as he has risen through the ranks of public education.

“I don’t think they could pick a better horse,” said Zachary Mayor David Amrhein, the city where Drake once served as schools superintendent. “He’s going to do the same thing in EBR that he did here.”

“I think he’s a fine fellow,” said Jesse Spears, an African-American leader and one of the founders of the Zachary school system. “He’s good at listening to people’s ideas and bringing the best out of them.”

Drake’s boss, state Superintendent of Education John White, joined in the chorus of praise. He described Drake as the kind of leader who can speak to a wide variety of audiences.

“He can talk to people with competing agendas and get them to talk together and have a common agenda,” White said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to name Drake as its sole finalist from among 10 applicants to replace Bernard Taylor, whose three-year contract as superintendent expires June 30.

School Board members plan to interview Drake at 6 p.m. on Thursday, and, assuming he handles himself well there, the board will meet again in April and is expected to hire him.

Drake said he plans to present the board with a 100-day plan of what he’d like to do as superintendent. At the top of the list is what he’s calling, loosely, “One Team, One Mission.”

“I think there are a lot of good principals there, a lot of good teachers,” he said. “I think we want to bring people together under one vision, one mission.”

Drake said he’s big on backing up the people he picks to lead and that he expects them, in turn, to do the same with their people. He said that kind of support will help to overcome difficulties the parish has encountered in recent years finding teacher and principals to work in often tough-to-teach schools.

He also thinks it’s key to setting the school system apart from increased competition, particularly from independent charter schools.

“People still want to be in a job where they feel they can make a difference, and there’s no other job more important than education,” he said.

Although born in Homer, Drake, 63, has deep roots in East Baton Rouge Parish. He has called the parish home since getting his master’s degree in education administration from LSU in the late 1970s. He worked for the parish school system for much of his career.

He’s a network leader for White, the state education superintendent. In that capacity, he’s working with 19 different school districts ranging from Calcasieu to St. Helena parishes.

But Drake is best known locally for the decade he spent as superintendent of the Zachary school system.

Zachary’s first paid employee, Drake spent 11 months assembling a staff and getting the schools ready to open in summer 2003. After its first year, Zachary landed at No. 1 in the state’s academic rankings and has stayed there since.

In 2012, AdvancEd, the international accrediting body, judged Zachary “highly functional” in all seven of its standards, a rare feat, saying its students were its “number one advocates.”

By returning to the school system where he spent a quarter-century as an educator, Drake is looking to take on the biggest challenge of his career.

East Baton Rouge Parish is home to 80-plus schools and more than 42,000 students, making it the second largest school district in Louisiana. While all Zachary schools are A-rated schools, East Baton Rouge is dominated by schools with C, D and a small number of F grades. On the other end of the spectrum, however, the parish school system also has several schools that outperform Zachary schools.

Where Zachary is almost evenly divided between black and white students, East Baton Rouge is almost 80 percent black and 10 percent of its students are white, with the rest a mix of Hispanic, Asian and other ethnicities.

Economically, Zachary is the most affluent district in the state, although 4 out of 10 of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. By contrast, about 80 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish students are on some sort of federal assistance.

If hired, Drake would be the first current or former employee to lead the system in six years, the first white superintendent in 11 years and the first former East Baton Rouge teacher at the helm since Raymond Arveson retired in 1987.

David Corona is a longtime East Baton Rouge Parish educator like Drake who went elsewhere to become superintendent, in his case West Baton Rouge Parish, which he led from 2004 until he retired in 2014. Corona said it’s high time the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board looked closer to home for talent.

“It seems, for a long time, the board had the mentality that you had to live at least 250 miles away from Baton Rouge to get the job,” Corona said.

Corona has known Drake since he hired him as a history teacher at Tara High School in Baton Rouge. In 1996, Drake became Tara’s principal while Corona was promoted to a job in the Central Office overseeing high schools. He said Drake was an excellent principal who later became a great superintendent.

“None of it was rocket science,” Corona said. “He had a vision of what he wanted to do. He hired good people and empowered them to do their jobs, which is exactly what you have to do as a superintendent.”

Gary Mathews, the East Baton Rouge Parish superintendent who promoted Drake to become Tara High’s principal, said Drake did a fine job in the six years he ran that large racially diverse high school.

“Warren was absolutely one of the most outstanding principals in the district,” said Mathews, who has retired and lives in Baton Rouge. “I love his tenacity in making sure teachers teach every student well and his dedication to get every person on board with that mission.”

Charlotte Placide, a deputy superintendent under Mathews who in 2004 became superintendent herself, said Drake “always demonstrated a high degree of integrity and displayed a professional and positive attitude in his work ethic.”

She also said that when Drake was superintendent in Zachary, he served in many leadership roles on state issues and was well respected by other school leaders.

Noel Hammatt, a longtime School Board member-turned-education activist and independent researcher, has raised questions about the superintendent search process that led to Drake being named the lone finalist.

But he said he’s a fan of the man himself.

“Hey, look, I like Warren Drake,” Hammatt said. “I think he was a great principal.”

Corona said Drake is going to need support from a School Board that has suffered from deep divisions through much of its history.

“If he’s up there fighting for his own skin, it won’t work,” Corona said. “They got to provide him support. Give him three or four things they want to accomplish and let him do it.”

Drake said he thinks he can bridge those kind of divides.

“One of my strengths is to bring people together,” he said.

Drake’s tenure in Zachary was not without controversy.

In December 2008, without explaining why, Drake fired Zachary High football coach Bob Howell and he let Principal Kevin Lemoine know he would not be renewing his contract. Lemoine resigned soon after, but in July 2009, he sued the school system for damages. He claimed Drake was mad because Howell did not push Drake’s son enough to make the All-District football team and took revenge on Lemoine when Lemoine refused to fire the coach.

In June 2010, Lemoine told the court that all his claims “have been compromised” and asked the court to dismiss the matter. Lemoine did not return a message seeking comment, and Drake wouldn’t talk about it.

“That’s such ancient history now,” Drake said.

Ironically, both Lemoine and Drake now work for different arms of the Louisiana Department of Education.

Scott Devillier, who succeeded Drake as Zachary’s superintendent, said he is not surprised that Drake is willing to take on the challenge of leading the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

“He’s always been someone up for the next challenge,” Devillier said. “He started his career in East Baton Rouge Parish, and there’s always been a part of him that wanted to go back and make a difference.”