desks school stock classroom

A proposal to restore local control to seven state-controlled school campuses in Baton Rouge sparked debate Monday about how much control would actually be restored and how soon.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members also debated potential financial costs of such a return, increased liability as well as the negative drag bringing those schools back could have on the school district’s overall academic performance numbers.

“I want some flexibility and true authority and oversight over what we’re doing,” said board member Connie Bernard.

Board President Mike Gaudet said Monday’s meeting was meant to air any concerns now and that negotiations are ongoing.

“I want to make clear that no line is drawn in the sand,” Gaudet said.

The seven properties are part of the state-run Recovery School District. They were once part of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, but were taken over in 2008 and 2009 after years of low academic performance.

RSD immediately converted them to charter schools. Most have seen numerous leadership changes.

Kenilworth Middle, which became Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School, is the only one of the seven properties still operated by the same group originally given the charter. Democracy Prep, which took over the Prescott Middle campus in 2015, is the second oldest.

There’ve been talks on and off for years of reuniting RSD schools with the parish school system.

The model is what happened in New Orleans. There, a special state law spelled out how state-monitored charter schools would be returned to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board, a process that played out between 2016 and 2018.

Doing something similar in Baton Rouge has proved a much slower process, but those talks picked up speed last summer. Part of that was the passage of a new charter policy that streamlined how the school system approves, monitors and renews charter schools.

The recent talks have been led by Gwynn Shamlin, general counsel for the school system, and Assistant State Superintendent Dana Peterson.

“The working relationship between the agencies has dramatically improved by effort of both sides,” Peterson said.

“There are nights when I wake up with Mr. Peterson's face in my head,” Shamlin said with a laugh. “Started as a nightmare, but it got better.”

Shamlin and Peterson led the presentation at Monday’s special meeting. It was a “workshop meeting,” which meant no votes were taken and no public comment accepted.

Shamlin and Peterson detailed areas of agreement as well as continued disagreement.

The two proposed two stages of return.

The first stage, which could occur soon, would allow the campus Crestmorth Middle, currently unoccupied, to return to local control. At the same time, the charter school currently using the Glen Oaks Middle campus would move a few blocks over to vacant school property at 5959 Cadillac St. The newly vacant Glen Oaks Middle campus would then be demolished.

The second stage, which is still being negotiated, would take five RSD charter schools and move them to the control of the parish school system. These are Kenilworth and Democracy Prep, as well as three schools run by Redesign Schools, formerly Celerity Schools. Those three schools are at Glen Oaks Middle, as well as at Dalton and Lanier elementaries.

A final RSD property, Capitol High, is not currently a charter school. State officials as well as alumni have been talking to the prominent charter school group KIPP: New Orleans about taking over the campus. But given the uncertainty, Shamlin listed that shift as “TBD.”

Peterson did not say when that second stage of reunification would take effect, but said the date of July 1, 2021 is possible.

The two sides, however, have yet to agree on at least a few points:

  • When will the school performance scores of these returning schools be added to the overall school district numbers?
  • Will the current charter contracts be locked in as by designating the returning schools as Type 3B charters, limiting the options for the school system?
  • Will the returning charter schools be able to function as independent school districts or will they rely on the school system for certain services, such as standardized testing and enrollment reporting?

The first question generated a lot of discussion.

Peterson pressed for the scores of RSD schools to be immediately added to East Baton Rouge's overall performance score. Shamlin, however, has pushed for those scores to added in over time as those schools' charters expire and are renewed by the school system.

Peterson acknowledged that the school system would have seen its district performance score drop by 0.9 of a point if RSD schools were part of the school district today, which Peterson is not a significant decline.

“I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill,” he said. “ It’s literally nine tenths of a point difference.”

Board member Jill Dyason, however, noted that the school system is just a few points away from improving from a C to a B district and she doesn’t want anything making that harder.

“Sometimes that becomes a mountain when we want to be a B,” she said.

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