desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Despite opposition from many teachers and many parents, a proposal to move up by two weeks the start of the 2021-22 school year in East Baton Rouge Parish in order to help reverse COVID learning loss is still kicking and will be debated anew when the board meets again next Thursday.

In a related item, the board on Thursday offered preliminary support for paying school employees who worked this school year a $1,300 stipend. Several board members, however, pushed to find ways to pay employees, especially retirees, earlier than August as is  currently planned, perhaps as soon as May. Superintendent Sito Narcisse agreed to see what he could do.

Thursday’s board meeting stretched on past midnight. As Thursday turned to Friday, board members became more and more frustrated. Board members Connie Bernard and David Tatman left and arguments broke out with the members who were still left. The lights even went out for several minutes.

“Can we please stop the infighting so we can please get through these items?” asked board member Dadrius Lanus. “As it is we’re not going to be done until after 2 a.m.”

Board members won’t get any rest. They have an all-day retreat Friday morning to continue work on a strategic plan for the school system.

Much of Thursday’s meeting focused on Narcisse’s proposal, which he calls Smart Start.

The plan would bring instructional staff back on July 19, two weeks earlier than planned, and students on July 28, 12 days earlier than planned. Those employees would have 10 more days of work, and students would have eight more days of school.

As justification, he noted that students have lost many instructional days during the coronavirus pandemic and have fallen behind. He pointed to literacy results for young children that declined last fall compared to the year before, as well as failure rates in courses doubling last fall across the school district.

To make Smart Start happen, the School Board is being asked to approve a revised 2021-22 calendar. It would replace the calendar the board approved on March 18, less than a month ago.

Thursday’s meeting capped several days of public gatherings, in-person and virtual, in which Narcisse sought to sell the idea.

At events this week, Narcisse has been hit with wide-ranging criticism and Thursday was no exception.

A large crowd was present both inside and outside of the district’s Professional Development Center. Many wore red as in “Red for Ed.”

A local teacher’s union, East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, organized a “sickout” Monday to protest Smart Start and urged supporters to pack Thursday’s board meeting.

A stream of the speakers talked about the many challenges of educating during the pandemic and how they have been relishing the upcoming summer.

Storm Matthews, an active EBRPAE member, said she and other teachers are tired and need a break.

"We are exhausted,” Matthews said. “We need to rejuvenate so we can give these children everything we have."

Paige Colwell, a teacher at McKinley Middle, said she supports year-round schools, but Smart Start was rushed when it should have been well-planned.

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“This plan seems more reactive than preventive," Colwell said.

"This is all you need to know,” said Trudy Huffty, a kindergarten teacher at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet. “Happy teachers make happy children, and happy children, they learn more."

"Taking away their summer is not helping. Every student I’ve talked with says, 'This feels like a punishment," said Jeffery Johnson, a teacher at Northeast High.

School Board members had far less to say.

Board member Mike Gaudet persuaded the board to take no stance Thursday. In a 6-2 vote, the board forwarded the item to the board’s April 22 meeting without recommendation.

"We want to continue to allow the public time to get info on this, so when it comes time for a final vote we can give the all the public a chance to have their say on this,” Gaudet said.

Board members Dawn Collins and David Tatman — board vice president and president, respectively — were the No votes. Board member Tramelle Howard did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

Anne Marie Blank, a parent with the Progressive Social Network of Baton Rouge, was disappointed.

"This doesn’t solve anything,” Blank said. “This means that you will do this all again next week. And you will still not have meaningfully involved parents, teachers and students."

At least two of the Yes votes, though, expressed concern.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson said she likes Smart Start, but worries that it’s coming too late and will be too disruptive. Rather than starting the school year early, she suggested ending it late, which would mean the 2021-22 school year would end in June rather than May. Some applause broke out.

"It seems to me there would be virtually the same effect, if not the same effect,” Ware-Jackson said.

Narcisse, however, was skeptical, but hinted that he might be able to go along with the idea if there was professional development earlier than Aug. 2, when teachers are currently supposed to report back.

Before leaving the meeting, Bernard expressed interest in Ware-Jackson’s motion, but the two spent several minutes trying to come up with mutually agreeable language and failed. With dozens of speakers waiting to talk, Lanus complained at how long it was all taking, prompting Ware-Jackson to pull her motion.

By contract, the $1,300 stipend sparked far less controversy, though more debate.

Gaudet, in particular, pressed for ways the school system could pay retirees the stipend. As it stands, employees who retire this school year are unlikely to be able to receive the stipend.

Chief Financial Officer Kelly Lopez said she’s going to look at the possibility of paying retirees this school year, and pay everyone else in August. She, however, resisted calls to pay every a stipend right away saying that would mean an “unbalanced” budget this fiscal year where spending outpaces revenue. She said the district will better afford the stipend if it was paid out in the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.


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