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As seen in this Feb. 16, 2017 photo, Glen Oaks High is among 19 East Baton Rouge school system buildings damaged in the August flood. Total damage is now estimated between $75 million and $100 million. 

Advocate Staff File Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Leaders of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system scored a major victory Tuesday when Louisiana's top school board voted to freeze most letter grades at the school year before the flood of 2016.

Under the plan, school and district grades and performance scores will be the same this year as they were for the 2015-16 education year because of flood-related turmoil.

In addition, schools that showed gains despite the flood will get credit for those improvements when the annual, all-important grades are announced in November for 2016-17.

The decision by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was just short of the district's request for a waiver from letter grades or school performance scores.

Warren Drake, superintendent of the district, was delighted by the results after sitting through nearly four hours of BESE debate on other topics.

"I think it is a win-win for East Baton Rouge Parish," Drake said after the meeting. "We had a catastrophic tragedy in this parish."

Earlier Drake and others had implored the 11-member state panel to grant the district relief.

"The flood that we had last year was a thousand year flood," Drake said. "No one had ever experienced anything like this before." 

Drake added, "I ask you, I beg you, to take a look at the human factors that took place in Baton Rouge."

Bernard Williams, principal of Glen Oaks Park Elementary School, said his school lost everything after the torrential rains,  and 15 of the school's 21 key teachers did too.

"There was no handbook or training for anybody for losing a whole building and to watch children not have a place to go," Williams said.

"We have an opportunity to make things right," he said of the district's request.

Costs to repair Williams' school were estimated to be $4.4 million.

Drake said earlier this year that repairing all the district's flooded schools would be $62.5 million.

District and school letter grades are based largely on how students fare on key exams.

The East Baton Rouge school system is rated C by the state. However, there were fears that scores would plummet this time, largely because of the historic flood.

Public schools were closed for 16 days, two short of the minimum needed to qualify for a state waiver on letter grades. But what BESE approved amounts to a quasi-waiver, with scores and letter grades standing pat or, in some cases, going up.

Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, told BESE members that if they had "an ounce of compassion for these children" they would grant the district's request. Smith is a member of the House Education Committee and a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish school board.

Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, also urged BESE to provide relief for the school system.

State Superintendent of Education John White initially recommended that schools shown to have suffered major problems enjoy some flexibility in the state's grading system.

Under that proposal, select schools would have picked between their 2015-16 or 2016-17 results, whichever were higher.

White changed that on Tuesday to have the approved policy apply to all of the district's 83 schools.

"What this assures is there is no unfair drop because of the catastrophic circumstances," White told BESE.

He also praised leaders of the district for working with state officials.

"I hope this is satisfactory to you," White said.

The plan that won approval was crafted out of public view.

BESE, after hours of debate on another issue, never got embroiled in arguments on the merits of the request by Drake, a former top official of the state Department of Education.

Not everyone embraced the district's proposal.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, noted that earlier this year a bill failed in the Legislature to exempt flood-damaged school districts from state-issued letter grades.

Nieland said other school districts that were "virtually destroyed" by the flood were not appearing before BESE making requests similar to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Drake said afterwards that he thought sentiment changed when BESE members heard from area educators and others.

"I think they began to realize as people talked the real gravity of what happened in Baton Rouge last year and they were willing to say 'They are right, let's do something to help them.'"

The policy approved Tuesday was done by a BESE committee.

However, since most of the full board was on hand final approval is all but certain when it meets on Wednesday at 9 a.m.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.