BAKER —In a forum that lasted longer than 21/2 hours, more than 120 people listened Monday to panelists and audience members discuss problems of the Baker school system.

Skip Smart, director of community competitiveness for Louisiana Economic Development, said his organization called the meeting as part of Baker’s involvement in the Louisiana’s Development Ready Community Program.

The goal of the program, Smart said, is to help communities improve their economic development prospects. He said five issues are central to the process — leadership, infrastructure, marketing, labor and education.

Smart told the audience that 196 people and 30 businesses took surveys on the issues facing Baker. He said 68 percent of the individuals surveyed and that 87 percent of businesses cited secondary education as a severe weakness in the community.

Baker School Board members Dana Carpenter, Troy Watson and Doris Alexander attended the forum, as did Baker city council member Robert Young and Baker mayor Harold Rideau. Warren Drake, former Zachary superintendent who is now network leader for the state Department of Education, also participated.

Panelists Ulysses Joseph, superintendent of Baker schools; Joyce Burges, Baker city council member and founder of National Black Home Educators; Eric Lewis, state director of Black Alliance for Educational Options and John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education, spoke about the problems with the schools and ways to solve them.

Joseph said he believes the school district is on the right track.

“I hope in the future we will be looking at a school district that’s tops in the Baker area,” Joseph said.

He said that he is working to provide incentives for students and do repairs to school facilities.

Burgess and Lewis told the audience that their organizations provided support to parents looking for alternatives to public schools.

White said that he was willing to do “whatever it takes” to provide quality education for children in Louisiana. He said it is a “moral issue” to provide every child access to a good school where he or she has an opportunity to learn and to become successful.

To achieve that goal, White said, the state needs to start before pre-K to make sure children are ready to learn. It also has to support teachers and allow parents school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools, he said.

During the audience comment part of the discussion, BESE board member Carolyn Hill (8th district) said that Baker’s problem is a lack of money.

“Baker can’t run off the MFP alone,” Hill said, referring to the money the system gets from the state Minimum Foundation Program. “You don’t have the tax base. It will take people in this community coming together.”

She said Baker lost $500,000 of state Minimum Foundation Program money this year.

Many audience members expressed frustration at the fact that they saw no solutions being provided to the problems in the Baker school system. They cited problems including poor facilities, discipline problems and teacher apathy.