desks school stock classroom

After a lengthy debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday agreed to give Superintendent Warren Drake authority to lay off employees, but not before hearing it from some of those 6,000 individuals whose jobs are potentially in jeopardy.

Also, the board deadlocked seven times on who should be the next School Board vice president. Neither of the two board members still in the running, Mark Bellue and Dadrius Lanus, were able to get the minimum five votes needed.

On the possible layoffs, the School Board voted 5-4 to give Drake permission to invoke the school system’s Reduction in Force policy if necessary to balance the budget.

Voting yes were Bellue, Jill Dyason, Mike Gaudet, Connie Bernard and David Tatman.

Voting no were Lanus, Tramelle Howard, Dawn Collins and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

Invoking a RIF doesn’t automatically mean employee layoffs, but it increases the possibility. In an effort to cut the budget without resorting to layoffs, Drake for nearly a year has been leaving jobs unfilled as positions opened.

"I’m very confident we will able to cut the amount of money we need to cut, $20 to $30 million, without having to do a RIF," he said.

The layoffs won’t occur until May 26 at earliest, as per district policy, 30 days after Thursday’s board meeting. Drake is looking for a way to trim the budget in advance of the 2019-20 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Collins, who voted no, said the board could waive its 30-day delay rule. She said that would give the board more time to see a draft of the proposed budget for 2019-20 and see if it’s still necessary. But she admitted that layoffs may still be necessary.

“We have a huge deficit and if attrition won’t solve the problem we will have to do a RIF,” she said.

Gaudet, the board president, said the budget hole is likely to be bigger than projected because of lagging sales and property tax collections. Preliminary estimates suggest a $29 million deficit, up from $25 million. He said staff has identified about $20 million in cuts so far and are looking hard for rest.

“This is real,” Gaudet said.

Even though RIF letters won’t be mailed out for at least a month, some employees are already being told they will likely have to look for another job somewhere else in the school system. The jobs of these 100-or-so employees are in jeopardy due to a separate, annual budget process in which school principals figure out the number of staff members they will have the following school year.

As part of that process, affected employees received impact letters telling them their position is slated to be cut because of program changes or school restructuring. Those who remain on the impact list, set to be made final Monday, won't be returning to their schools in the same positions they held.

Many teachers, parents and students spoke out Thursday about the impact letters. Many of them were from McKinley High, where several science teachers have received letters.

“I love my school and I’m not entirely sure, but it feels like I’m being targeted,” said Barbara Araneda, a science teacher at the Baton Rouge high school.

“I want to know why I don’t fit in at my school anymore,” she added.

Dalyn Smith, senior at McKinley High, said the cuts at her school are a sign of disrespect.

“What you’re telling us right now as students we don’t matter,” Smith said. “Because we are affected.”

Meanwhile, board members were unable to come to a decision on who among their members should serve as vice president.

The board vote was part of a settlement with Baton Rouge attorney Donald Hodge, who said the board violated the state’s open meetings law when it cut short his public comments during the Jan. 17 board meeting when it voted 5-3 to name Dyason as its vice president.

Hodge opposed Dyason because she had signed the petition to put creating a City of St. George on the ballot. On Thursday, he was finally able to fully articulate his opposition.

“I don’t even know why Ms. Dyason has been nominated,” he said. “She shouldn’t even be on this board.”

The vote for vice president broke down along racial lines:

For Bellue, who is white: Bellue, Bernard, Gaudet and Tatman.

For Lanus, who is black: Howard, Lanus and Ware-Jackson.

Two board members, Dyason and Collins, abstained. Dyason is white and Collins is black.

On an eighth vote, Collins voted for Lanus, bringing the margin to 4-4, but still deadlocked.

Dyason didn't budge. She has served as vice president since January. She was nominated to stay in the job Thursday, but she earned only one vote, from herself.

The continued deadlock prompted recriminations.

“You at least have a diligence to vote for someone,” said Howard to the two abstaining board members. “I’m not saying who you should vote for but you have to vote for someone.”

“I can’t agree with Mr. Howard more,” added Ware-Jackson.

Hodge expressed disgust the board couldn’t come to a decision to replace Dyason.

“It is embarrassing for East Baton Rouge Parish, it was embarrassing for this district and it’s embarrassing for Ms. Dyason,” Hodge said.

Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection online publication, said the white board members should be ashamed to not support Lanus in a school district where 80 percent of the students are black.

“That is as racist as it comes, vote after vote you won’t side with your black brother,” Chambers said.

Dyason, meanwhile, will remain as vice president until the board votes otherwise.

The board agreed to address the issue again at special meeting on May 2. The vote to hold that vote was 5-4. There was opposition because Collins will not be able to attend the meeting, leaving just eight board members to vote.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.