Tax dispute involving The Bluffs golf course leads to investigation of Louisiana Tax Commission _lowres

Photo Courtesy of The Bluffs on Thompson Creek. Thompson Creek adds to the scenery just above the green of the ninth hole at the Bluffs on Thompson Creek golf course about seven miles from St. Francisville. This is an aerial photo. Keyword Recreation Sports

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members are spending Friday and part of Saturday not at their offices on South Foster Drive but a 45-minute drive north at a golf resort east of St. Francisville.

A long agenda, however, is likely to keep them off the Arnold Palmer-designed course at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek.

The two-day retreat is meant to kick off the four-year terms of office board members started two weeks ago. The board has seven returning and two newly elected members.

The retreat agenda includes a status report on the school system’s financial problems as well as a discussion of “board priorities and core values,” student achievement, marketing schools, and customer service.

On Friday, the board plans to convene in “The Lodge” section of the resort, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing around 5 p.m. After spending the night, board members plan to reconvene at 9 a.m., wrapping up shortly after noon. No votes are planned and members of the public are invited to attend.

Discussion of the board’s priorities and core values, set for Friday afternoon, is clearly the main event.

“As my dad used to say, ‘If you don’t know where you are and you don’t know where you’re going, any road looks as good as any other,'” Board President Mike Gaudet said. “Not that we’re that bad, but there is some of that.”

Gaudet, a former chemical engineer and retired executive with Albemarle Corp., said planning for the retreat was led by former Board President David Tatman and Superintendent Warren Drake and that it was largely complete by the time he was selected as president by his peers this month. But Gaudet he said he agrees with what Tatman and Drake came up with.

Gaudet has spoken repeatedly about the need for the board to settle on its priorities and core values. It’s the first such high-level discussion since September 2013, when the School Board approved a 29-page strategic plan.

The facilitators of the retreat are Christel Slaughter and Rudy Gomez with SSA Consultants in Baton Rouge; Slaughter and Gomez served a similar role during the two years of work developing the strategic plan.

Gaudet said he read that plan when he joined the board in January 2017 but has almost never heard it mentioned since.

“That long-range plan was developed and put on the shelf and hasn’t really been taken back down from the shelf,” he said.

But Gaudet said he’s not looking to develop a new strategic plan right away, a task he said should wait until after Drake retires as he’s said he would in June 2020. Instead, Gaudet said, he’s looking to develop a much smaller list of "actionable" core values, perhaps just a page long. He said he also wants each board member to specialize in a policy area that that person is passionate about.

The purpose, he said, is for the board to do the hard thinking up front about what it wants so the board can more effectively set educational policy.

“On many issues I've felt that policy-making was staff-driven as opposed to having the policies set by the board or the staff developing policies to match the board's wishes,” he said.

School officials estimated the cost of the retreat at about $6,300. That includes hotel rooms for nine School Board members and eight staff members, five meals for each of them, rental of the meeting room and hiring the facilitators.

Covering these costs are unnamed private donors to the Foundation for the East Baton Rouge School System, a private foundation formed in 2011 to raise money for the school system. Executive Director Keila Stovall said she does not know who the donors are, but said the foundation receives lots of gifts funding a variety of school initiatives and that “it has been my practice to keep gifts like the ones for the retreat anonymous.”

Gaudet said he said he doesn’t know who the donors are either, but said his understanding is they are “business partners” to the school system.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.