McKinley High School started this school year with a staff of 125, one of the largest of any public school in Baton Rouge. Next year, that staffing level likely will be much smaller.
Esrom Pitre, who took over as principal of McKinley High last summer, said he recently handed out at least 18 "impact letters." Those on the receiving end have to look for other jobs in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
“It was extremely difficult process giving out those impact letters,” Pitre said. “It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to do as a principal.”
The final list of affected employees won’t be finalized until Monday, but school system officials say 190 employees have already received impact letters.
These impact letters are part of an annual budget process in which school principals figure out the number of staff members they will have the following school year. Some employees have mistaken the letters for the potential layoffs that school system leaders have also been talking about.
Changes in student enrollment largely determine how many employees get impact letters, and enrollment at many schools in Baton Rouge has declined. For instance, McKinley High still has about 1,150 students, but its enrollment is down from its 2015 peak of more than 1,400 students.
Also, the high school’s prominent gifted program is losing kids, particularly to nearby Lee High, which was rebuilt and expanded in 2016. Pitre said McKinley High once had about 350 gifted students but that’s down to 190. Recruiting efforts to reverse that trend have fallen short so far, he said.
Gifted students receive additional state per-pupil funding so losing them hurts schools more than the loss of regular education students. Ten of the 18 positions being cut at McKinley High serve gifted students: Six of those positions are science teachers, an area that has a relative glut of teachers, Pitre said.
Pitre said a few of the displaced teachers likely will be rehired for other jobs at the 800 E. McKinley St. campus. And he said he is still negotiating with the school system's Human Resources department to add back one or more of those positions.
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Layoffs may be coming as well to McKinley High and other schools as the school district tries to find $20 million to $30 million in savings in advance of the 2019-20 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Any layoffs, however, wouldn’t start until May 26 at the earliest.
The School Board on Thursday narrowly agreed to let Superintendent Warren Drake invoke its reduction in force policy if he feels it’s necessary. Drake, however, said he’s hopeful layoffs won’t be necessary because between 250 and 300 employees leave each year via retirement or other forms of attrition.
The impact letters, however, dominated the debate Thursday.
Drake said this year’s staffing process is a bit different. Given the need for budget cuts, the school system is being stricter in following its various staffing formulas, meaning more positions are being cut, he said.
For instance, gifted classes have smaller class sizes, with 23 students per teacher the maximum. But many gifted classes in Baton Rouge are much smaller than that.
“If you have a gifted teacher that teaches 50 kids in a day and they can teach up to 23 kids (per class), then (that teacher) ought to have closer to 100 students per day,” Drake said.
Many of the speakers Thursday were connected to McKinley High. Several questioned the cuts in science teachers.
Ashanta Gleason, a senior and president of McKinley High’s student government association, said since first grade she’s never had a math teacher the entire school year until this year. She said her weakness at math and science is making it hard for her to get a high enough ACT score to get into college. And now she’s worried her younger siblings will face similar difficulties due to the cuts at McKinley.
“I have a brother who wants to be an engineer. How is he going to be an engineer if the math and science teachers aren’t here?” Gleason said.
Jaidyn Bryant, a senior at McKinley High School and the 2019 student of the year for the school system, wondered why a high school that lack resources now is making things worse by cutting teachers.
“A lot of the teachers who are being given impact letters in my school I know them to be every effective teachers,” Bryant said. “They’re part of the reason I got to be student of the year.”
Millie Williams, chief human resources officer, said schools are using performance, attendance and certification status to decide which employees get impact letters. This year, principals were also asked to attach documentation explaining why they chose who they chose.
“We do that because we’re trying to keep politics out of it and really use criteria and information that they have documented,” Williams said.
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Leaders of local teachers unions, however, continue to express concern that some principals are targeting teachers they don’t like and say the process so far has not been transparent.
“The teachers and employees were never told the criteria that Miss Millie told you about,” said Gretchen Lampe, UniServ director with the Louisiana Association of Educators.
Lampe also questioned why some teachers are landing on the list.
“They had all been highly effective over a long period of time, and a lot of them were in the science and math area,” Lampe said.
Pitre said he had a team of administrators at McKinley High helping him. They relied on aspects of the Louisiana’s teacher evaluation process, including classroom observations by administrators, district-level standardized test results, teacher attendance and whether the teacher have been fulfilling their various professional responsibilities.
Even so, because of the number of cuts and where they fell, Pitre said, he was forced to get rid of good teachers.
Pitre, however, acknowledged that he’s limited his judgments to data from the current school year. For instance, he did not use teacher evaluations from past years, meaning he did not look at teacher-level results from ACT and other state-mandated standardized tests. He said he did not have ready access to those files when he arrived at McKinley and would have had to go to Central Office to get them.
Barbara Araneda, a science teacher at McKinley High, said she wants to know exactly why she was placed on the impact list so she can challenge the decision.
“I got a 3.8 (on a 4-point scale) on my formal evaluation this year, I’m never late to school, and all my lesson plans are in on time, so I’m really confused,” Araneda said.