School Board appalled at condition of RSD schools, but questions who’s responsible for upkeep _lowres

Photo from -- Ceiling tiles damaged by water intrusion at Prescott Middle School.

Seven north Baton Rouge schools taken over by the state for chronic low academic performance have steadily fallen into disrepair. A long-simmering debate about who’s responsible for bringing them back into good repair broke out in public view at the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board meeting on Thursday.

School Board members saw recent pictures capturing problems at the seven schools and were appalled.

“It doesn’t make any sense sending your children to schools that look like this,” board member Vereta Lee said.

Board members Jerry Arbour and Tarvald Smith said the board should consider going to court to determine once and for all who’s responsible for what parts of these schools. Smith said he’s been party to past discussions with state leaders aimed at resolving the issue that went nowhere.

“This is going around and around, but at some point, we’re going to have take some action,” Smith said.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor said he has received requests from the current leadership at Capitol High, one of the seven schools, to find a way to break the logjam and help fix $250,000 worth of problems at that school.

Meanwhile, leaders of the state-run Recovery School District, which controls Capitol and six other north Baton Rouge schools, are saying the school system is obligated to spend more money on capital improvements at the seven schools than what it has committed to fixing.

State law allows RSD to take over schools that for four years or more fall short of state minimum academic standards. The state has taken over eight schools from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system since 2008.

Seven are in north Baton Rouge: Capitol and Istrouma high schools; Crestworth, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools; and Dalton and Lanier elementary schools. One is in south Baton Rouge, Kenilworth Middle School.

“We have no problems with Kenilworth,” said Catherine Fletcher, chief business operation officer.

Fletcher said she has a good working relationship with Kenilworth Principal Hasan Suzuk. That’s not the case, though, with the other seven schools, she said.

Under state school takeover law, the parish school system remains the owner of the school buildings but has little say over what happens there.

“We are a landlord with no rights,” Taylor said.

RSD is responsible for repairs and maintenance, while the school system is responsible for “extensive repair to buildings or facilities that would be considered to be a capital expense” but does not define what constitutes capital expense. This lack of clarity has been the root of the dispute.

“Capital improvement is a replacement of a major system,” argued Taylor, pointing to things like replacing an air-conditioning system or a roof. “Anything short of that is a repair and maintenance item.”

A recent tour by the school system’s facilities director, Larry Munson, showed that repairs and maintenance are often not happening.

Board members watched a slideshow of pictures that Munson took.

Fletcher showed a picture of part of the roof at Glen Oaks Middle and stopped to explain.

“These are little small bushes and trees growing on the roof,” she pointed out.

In other action, Nov. 4 will remain a workday for the nearly 6,000 employees of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system after the School Board failed to get enough votes Thursday to make Election Day an employee holiday.

The 2014-15 school year calendar was approved in March. It specified that Nov. 4 is a holiday for students but not for employees, who will spend the day in professional development.

Supporters of the idea said having employees at schools, many of which are polling places, impedes voting because they use up parking spaces that voters ordinarily would use.

Taylor, however, said giving employees the day off would require employees working another day later and would result in $2 million worth of lost productivity. He promised to find ways to get employees out of the way of voters.

“We’re not going to inconvenience voters,” he said. “I can assure you that.”

The board voted 4-3 to make Nov. 4 a holiday, short of the six votes needed.

Voting “yes” were board members Arbour, Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Smith. Voting “no” were board members Jill Dyason, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson. Board member Barbara Freiberg abstained. Board members Connie Bernard, Craig Freeman and Mary Lynch were not present at the time of the vote but had been at the meeting earlier.