Layoffs begin in Baker school district, but no tenured teachers have been let go yet _lowres

Herman Brister

Longtime Baker Schools Superintendent Herman Brister Sr. has resigned, leaving in doubt who will replace him in leading the suburban Baton Rouge school district.

Brister, a prominent educator who spent most of his career with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system before taking the job in Baker in May 2015, said in an interview Wednesday that he submitted his resignation on Friday after nine months of thinking about what to do.

“You have to know when it’s time to move on and that’s where everything is pointed,” Brister said.

Wednesday was his last day; he is taking accumulated sick leave for the last three months of the year until his contract ends Dec. 31.

“When I walk out here tonight, that would be it,” Brister said.

At an emergency meeting Wednesday night, from which Brister was absent, the Baker School Board unanimously promoted Assistant Superintendent Angela Domingue to take over as acting superintendent through Dec. 31; the two sides plan to work out details between now and the board’s next meeting on Tuesday.

Still to be determined is who will run things after that point.

Domingue, who worked with Brister for years in East Baton Rouge Parish and considers him a mentor, said after the meeting she first learned of his resignation at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday and was shocked. She said she plans to continue with the work her boss started, which has become greatly complicated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“My job is to keep the work going,” Domingue said.

Brister told The Advocate he’s had some discussions with School Board President Sharlous Booker and Vice President Vanessa Parker about extending his contract, but “didn’t get anything definite.”

“It’s time for me to step on out of the way,” he said.

In response to a public records request, Brister provided The Advocate with a copy of his one-page resignation letter, dated Monday. In the letter, he says he's made three unsuccessful attempts, mostly recently in a Sept. 16 meeting, "to obtain from board leadership some indication where I stood as superintendent."

"Given that I have not heard from board leadership since that time, I can only assume the board has a transition plan in place," Brister wrote.

In response to audience questioning, Booker, who was named board president in January, said she couldn’t say much about the underlying reasons for Brister leaving: “We can’t do anything about his decision.”

Booker disputed Brister, saying he reached out just once to her about extending his contract, not three times.

Sandra Hickman, one of the audience members who spoke, was dubious.

“If he did reach out three times, then shame on you,” Hickman said.

“Well, he didn’t,” Booker responded.

Board member Elaine Davis was the most complimentary of Brister.

“I think he has done an excellent job as superintendent, and I thought he deserved to have his contract extended,” Davis said.

Brister’s 5½ years at the helm makes him Baker’s longest serving superintendent since it broke away from the parish school system in 2003. Brister spent more than a decade as a top administrator for the parish school system, including four years as its chief academic officer, before moving to the Baker system.

“Coming in on a flood and finishing in a pandemic, it’s been a whirlwind,” Brister said. “The district is financially stable, and I like to believe that the district is in better shape than when I found it.”

The August 2016 floods were a big event during his tenure. Baker High School sustained significant damage. Its students have been working out of the Baker Middle facility ever since while they wait for their school to be restored and rebuilt.

Baker has struggled academically since it gained independence and its enrollment has slowly declined over time. Its most recent academic letter grade is a D; only four traditional school districts in the state performed worse. Last year, Baker had about 1,300 students, a 10% decline from when Brister took over.

Brister said he’d consider staying on longer if the board reached out to him, but “it’s not a door that’s wide open.”

“I’ve worked in my (area of) passion for 40 years,” he said. “And I can’t think of anything I would have rather have done on this earth than dedicating my life to children.”


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.