desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School District is asking the public what it wants in a new school leader — and hundreds have already weighed in.

They want someone with integrity, experience, fortitude, compassion and a willingness to make tough decisions. They want someone who will lift low test scores, find teachers for schools with shortages, rally morale for current teachers, right the imbalance of some schools getting more resources than other schools and improve an array of different educational services.

They also say the new leader must confront controversies over charter schools and the prospect that the City of St. George, which voters recently approved, will break away and form its own school district.

Residents spoke at community forums held earlier this month at McKinley Middle and Glen Oaks High School. They also spoke in a series of private meetings with “stakeholder” groups. And more than 350 individuals and counting have filled out an online survey.

Austin-based JG Consulting continues to gather public input through early January. A final community forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Woodlawn High School.

The firm is synthesizing all the information gathered at these meetings into a customized job profile meant to reflect what people in Baton Rouge want in a school superintendent.

Many speakers focused on the problems Baton Rouge is facing in public education.

Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker pointed to the dearth of highly rated schools that serve her constituents.

“I don’t care where you live, but if you got good schools over there I want good schools over here,” Wicker said.

Alton Frailey, a senior search consultant with the firm who has worked as a superintendent in four different districts, facilitated the meetings. He often repeated what people said in his own way: “You can’t just have quality here and not have quality there.”

At McKinley Middle, Kirk Green, a teacher at Westdale Middle School and a prominent member of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, pointed to St. George as evidence of deep-seated racial division.

“I’ll say it if no one else will. You have a divided community,” Green said. “The St. George vote just happened. They don’t want to be a part of us any longer.”

Frailey, however, said at the Glen Oaks High forum that such sentiments have been rare so far.

“We’ve heard from hundreds of folks. The message has been pretty consistent,” Frailey said. “We didn’t bring up the 'r word' tonight. I’m seeing more hope in the conversation.”

Cliff Lewis, a parental engagement specialist at Mentorship Academy, a charter school in downtown Baton Rouge, said the new superintendent needs experience in an urban school district like East Baton Rouge and needs a plan for integrating charter schools into the system. But he said one trait is paramount.

“You need someone who is here for the long haul,” Lewis said. “Most superintendents are here for just three to five years.”

Brian Haymon, vice president of the pro-charter group New Schools for Baton Rouge, said he wants someone courageous.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for the right person,” Haymon said. “Our community is poised to launch into the next generation of our school system to create a reality right now that is only a dream.”

Frailey tried hard to get the audience to highlight good things happening here, saying if he were young and “in the hunt,” he’d be tempted to apply himself.

“You have a lot of qualities that are very attractive,” he added.

Frailey suggested that Baton Rouge is capable of fixing its educational problems.

“It is all present and available in this town,” he said. “It’s a matter of agreeing on what we want and coming together to make it happen.”

On Jan. 9, JG Consulting plans to present its work to the school board, with a final vote planned for Jan. 16. Job applications would go live soon after and be open for at least a month.

The firm plans to pick what it considers the top 10 applicants, triggering finalist interviews with the one the board likes the best. The schedule calls for selecting someone by April, enough time for that person to start working in July after current superintendent Warren Drake retires.

“I do think there are some common themes with the challenges that are perceived from various parts of the community,” said James Guerra, the search firm's founder as well as its president and chief executive officer.

It is uncertain how much of what people have told the search firm will go into the final selection. Guerra said it insists on gathering input from the community in every search it does and has turned away boards that sought to skip that step.

School Board President Mike Gaudet said he will pay special attention to the "overwhelming things" that emerge from JG's work. He also said it's good to give residents a variety of ways to speak out if they choose to.

“I don’t think anyone can say they haven’t had a chance to have their voice heard,” Gaudet said.

The community forums already held attracted about 70 people each, though some of the same faces were at both. Certain groups came out in force for each, particularly the pro-charter school parent group, Stand For Children, and the civil rights-focused teacher group, South Louisiana Coalition for Education.

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