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A loosely organized group of business leaders has issued a letter calling the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board’s decision to conduct a new search for new superintendent — rather than choosing among the leading candidates of the last search — as the “last straw” and is threatening a big fight if the new search does not lead to the hiring of a “nationally recognized leader.”

The board’s decision on Oct. 15, made after five hours of often ugly debate, pleased almost no one. The move especially angered these business leaders, who described it as “the nadir of failed leadership both individually and as a board.”

“We will bring every resource we have to marshall support for a new direction for our children and our community,” reads the Oct. 21 letter, which was sent to all nine School Board members.

The letter is signed by R. Brian Haymon, chief executive officer of Loadstar Product Handling; Richard Lipsey of Lipsey Inc.; and Mike Polito, chief executive officer of MAPP general contractors. Thirty-five others agreed to add their names to the letter before it was sent.

The letter leaked out onto social media over the weekend and by Wednesday afternoon a total of 73 people had signed on. Haymon said he’s heard from many others who said they agreed with its contents.

“That sentiment is strongly felt by thousands of people across the community. It may be tens of thousands,” Haymon said. “I don’t know, but it’s a lot.”

Haymon said he’s not aware of any response to the letter from board members. Board President Mike Gaudet would not comment on the letter Wednesday.

The new superintendent search is sparked by the unexpected resignation on Oct. 6 of Leslie Brown, just two months after she took over the parish school system from the retiring Warren Drake. Brown resigned on Oct. 7, 16 days after going on emergency medical leave for an unspecified illness.

On Oct. 15, the School Board agreed to promote Associate Superintendent Adam Smith to interim superintendent, but only until the board can complete a new national search for a permanent superintendent. Teacher unions and many school employees pushed unsuccessfully to have Smith, a well-liked 24-year veteran of the school system, named to the job permanently.

The board also narrowly rejected foregoing a search and making the lone finalist the runner-up in the previous search: Nakia Towns, chief of staff of a school district in Chattanooga, Tenn., who was recently promoted to deputy superintendent there. Another proposal on the agenda to limit the search to Towns, Smith and two other top candidates from the last search — Quentina Timoll, a former school system administrator, and Marshall Tuck — was never considered.

In their letter, the business leaders faulted the School Board for foregoing Towns, or failing that, Tuck.

“The path you chose means that when it is all said and done, our children will have lost more than a year of superintendent leadership when it was needed most,” according to the letter. “That lost learning can never be recovered.”

Towns and Tuck were the favorites of these business leaders in the previous search. Tuck in particular had strong supporters in this group. He is a former president of the southern California-based charter school group Green Dot Schools, but he made his name as a former head of a nonprofit that took over 10 low performing Los Angeles schools. He tried to make the leap into politics, running twice for California state superintendent of public instruction, but fell short both times.

Watch: 5 candidates for EBR superintendent have video interviews with school board

Haymon is chair of the board for the nonprofit group New Schools for Baton Rouge, which recruits and offers financial support to charter school groups interested in locating schools in Baton Rouge. Haymon, however, said his work with the 30-plus business leaders is not connected to New Schools.

Haymon said Polito and Lipsey recruited him and others to the group when the first superintendent search began, saying they all share a common interest in the importance of education to the future of Baton Rouge. The group intentionally decided not to attach a name to themselves, he said.

The leaders weighed in at points during the first search, including urging the board to rework an initial draft of its job description, which the board did. The Oct. 21 letter, however, is its most significant intervention so far.

Haymon said the idea of taking action against the School Board in the future is not automatic and what action to take has not been decided upon. One possibility is fielding candidates to run against them when they are up for re-election in 2022.

Haymon said he’s worried the new search will drag on for months, will fail to turn up good candidates and will lead to Smith being named permanent superintendent. He said he’s not reflexively opposed to someone like Smith becoming superintendent, but he said that reform is needed and Smith and other in-house candidates are unlikely to deliver on that.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

Haymon said the School Board should not underestimate the level of frustration people feel.

“It’s not my last straw,” he said. “It’s the last straw of an impressive number of people.”


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