After months of promising big changes, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has pushed through much of Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s opening gambit to start remaking the school system to deal with stiff competition for students and financial challenges.
By wide margins, the board approved changes Thursday to schools in the Scotlandville area, reconfigured Delmont Elementary, expanded the Montessori magnet program into three more grades at Belfair Elementary, and created several new alternative schools.
The board held off for now on a proposal to remodel Mayfair Middle to mimic LSU Lab School, and another proposal to revamp other aspects of alternative schooling.
Taylor said he intends to bring more plans to the board in April and will revisit items the board wasn’t ready to approve Thursday. In particular, Taylor said, he is going to push changes for several other low performing schools in north Baton Rouge.
Taylor, who started as superintendent in June, has been signaling that big changes were coming, holding a series of community forums in November and January that would have affected dozens of schools. But he stopped short of committing many of his shifting ideas in writing.
The plans were held up by extended negotiations with leaders of the state Department of Education and the state-run Recovery School District, which runs seven schools in north Baton Rouge.
The two sides reached a memorandum of understanding in November that offers guidance for 11 schools, but left many other issues unaddressed. In particular, Taylor sought the return of one or more RSD-run middle schools, including the campus of Prescott Middle School, which all year has sat empty except for a few administrative offices.
Employees at some of the affected schools were told they would likely have new principals and that they would have to reapply for their jobs.
But with the 2013-14 school year starting in August, less than five months away, and a final agreement still unreached, Taylor decided to pull the trigger and go it alone on many aspects of his plans.
“It’s time for us to get off the dime,” Taylor urged the board.
The details of Taylor’s plans, however, were generally sketchy, in some cases limited only to two or three sentences descriptions on the agenda. Typically, the board releases at least some advance information explaining items it considers. And in most cases, those items are vetted two weeks beforehand at a “committee of the whole meeting.”
Eight separate items the board approved Thursday had not previously been considered.
James Finney, a parent of three schoolchildren who have all graduated from McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, criticized the lack of information presented.
“Are you fricking kidding me? You’re voting on something you haven’t seen?” Finney told the board.
Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, assured the board that it had met its legal obligations, by posting the meeting agenda at least 24 hours ahead of time.
But board member Jill Dyason, who has been on the board nearly 12 years, longer than anyone else, said that’s not enough.
“I am uncomfortable voting on these things,” Dyason said “That may just be legal. We’ve always been more than just legal.”
Dyason said she likes many of the ideas in broad strokes but without more details, she opted to abstain on many of the votes.
“It’s very difficult as board members to catch every little thing when we wait until the last night,” she said.
Taylor said he’s made himself available to board members who sought him out, but not everyone has taken him up on that.
“At some point, let me be the superintendent,” he said. “I’ve done this awhile, and I’m thinking I’m pretty good at it.”
Taylor has 11 years of prior experience as a school superintendent running school in Kansas City, Mo, and Grand Rapids, Mich.
Board member Craig Freeman said he has no reservations about what Taylor is proposing.
“I was so excited for this board meeting, more than any meeting than I’ve seen since I’ve been on this board,” Freeman said.
For months, Taylor has floated plans to remake schools in four parts of town into “attendance regions” with each having what he called a “family of schools” at the center, offering a variety of options and choices for families. The board unanimously approved Thursday one of those, for the Scotlandville area.
Starting in 2013-14, middle and elementary schools in this “family” will compete against each other for students. Three elementary schools in the Scotlandville area -- Crestworth, Progress and Ryan elementaries -- would cease to have attendance zones and families could choose which one works best for their child.
Taylor said he plans to bring up the Capitol and Glen Oaks plans in April, but is putting off changes in the Woodlawn area indefinitely.
Taylor also asked the board to reconfigure two chronically low performing schools, Delmont Elementary and Mayfair Middle, to avoid potential state takeover. The board agreed to close Delmont as an elementary school in May and toplace two prekindergarten programs there instead. In the case of Mayfair, the board agreed only to close the school at the end of this school year.
Several Delmont supporters including Principal Jill Saia urged the board to give the school more time. Saia said enrollment at the school is up and “student achievement is on the rise.”
The board balked, for now, at turning Mayfair Middle into a “laboratory school” modeled after LSU Lab School as part of a four-year contract.
The board also agreed unanimously Thursday to create several new alternative schools, each to be known as a “Superintendents Academy.” Students older than their peers and in need of special help and accelerated classes would be “invited” to attend theses special schools.