Belaire High School and three of its feeder schools got the green light Thursday from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to launch new STEM-themed magnet programs on Jan. 4 when the second semester begins
The School Board also discussed an issue that bedeviled the Metro Council on Wednesday: appointments to a mayor-president's advisory committee dealing with requests by industries for property tax exemptions.
The new magnet programs at Belaire High and their feeder schools are part of a big expansion of the school system’s popular magnet program. The School Board has approved eight new magnet programs since May, bringing the number of school with such specialized offerings up to 25.
Magnets use the allure of specialized programming to try to create racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.
Belaire High and feeder schools Park Forest and Villa Del Rey elementaries and Park Forest Middle in September were awarded a federal grant worth nearly $15 million over the next five years.
On Thursday night, the School Board unanimously approved the first-year budgets for those schools of $2.8 million altogether. That ranges from $496,000 for Villa del Rey to $560,000 for Belaire High.
The grant is from the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, part of the U.S. Department of Education. East Baton Rouge was one of 32 successful applicants out of 69 reviewed. The school system was notified Tuesday that it had won. It has fallen short when it applied for this same grant in 2004, 2013 and 2016.
The new programs will focus on STEM, short for science technology engineering and math; they are described slightly differently in the budget: “Creative Sciences and Arts”. The teaching positions the grant is funding are non-traditional. Belaire High, for instance, is hiring teachers for STEM coding and robotics, “children’s engineering” and renewable energy.
Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs, said the programs at Belaire and its feeder schools have been hiring teachers since October and many of the teachers already work at those schools.
The grant also will pay for a new assistant magnet schools director as well as a “promotions specialist” to help gin up interest in the new magnet programs, though they won’t stop there.
“Their primary focus will be the four schools; however, they will assist district-wide,” said Porter.
Belaire High and Park Forest Middle both have F letter grades, while Park Forest and Villa Del Rey elementary schools have D letter grades. The federal grant calls for raising these schools to A or B letter grades after five years and that all magnet students will be at or above grade level in reading and math by then.
Also on Thursday, board President Evelyn Ware-Jackson appointed Vice President Connie Bernard to an advisory committee organized by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome to evaluate applications for the Industrial Tax Exemption Program.
The state ITEP allows companies to forgo some property taxes if they make certain capital expenditures. The governor recently revamped the program to give local agencies a say in whether the exemptions should be awarded and the ability to attach conditions to those exemptions.
Those agencies in East Baton Rouge include the Metro Council, the School Board and the Sheriff's Office. On Wednesday, the Metro Council, unable to get past a deadlock, appointed not one but two of its members to the advisory committee.
Board member David Tatman on Thursday asked if the School Board could also add a second member to the committee.
“Are we going to have one vote and are they going to have two votes?” Tatman asked. “That seems absolutely troubling to me.”
Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said he’ll ask Broome if the School Board can have a second member like the Metro Council. But Rutledge noted the committee will just be an advisory body that seeks to develop common yardsticks which the agencies can use to assess the tax exemption requests. And the School Board, he said, won’t be bound by what the committee advises.
“I think it is of some value to allow that committee to inform the development of our criteria,” Rutledge said.
The School Board has already directed Superintendent Warren Drake come up with draft criteria for the ITEP requests by early in 2018. Also, the school district has retained LSU economist Jim Richardson to help as it develops its criteria.