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New EBR Supt. Sito Narcisse speaks during a town hall meeting, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, to discuss his plan to start schools two weeks early next school year, at the Woodlawn Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La.

After weeks of controversy over a proposal to start the next school year two weeks early, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday approved a compromise 2021-22 calendar with an August start date, but with more days of professional training before students show up.

The new calendar drops the idea of adding eight instructional days to the beginning of the school year, which would have started in late July. Instead, the board opted to find eight more instruction days, as well as more time for teacher training, between August and May of next year. It replaces a 2021-22 calendar the board approved barely a month ago.

Superintendent Sito Narcisse made the push for extra instructional time a key plank in his larger effort to try to reverse learning loss caused by the pandemic.

Also on Thursday, the board voted unanimously to approve a $1,300 stipend for full-time employee who took off no more than 20 days during the 2020-21 school year. They will get their one-time payout on June 8, earlier than the originally proposed date in August.

The 7-2 vote in favor of the revised calendar came a day Narcisse settled on a plan, drawing on a districtwide survey with 7,000-plus responses as well as feedback from a series of advisory council meetings.

Board members Connie Bernard and Dawn Collins cast the two opposing votes. Both expressed concern that the new calendar eliminates days for teacher-parent conferences.

While state law calls for schools to hold parent-teacher conferences twice a year, Associate Superintendent Adam Smith, who led the group that developed the calendar, said only certain students need them.

"I believe policy only requires a mandatory conference with students who are in jeopardy of failing," he said.

Bernard and Collins pressed Smith to find ways for schools to carve out enough time for parent-teacher conferences within days designated for that purpose.

The proposal to start the school year early, which Narcisse has been calling Smart Start, sparked unusually fierce and passionate opposition since it was announced publicly on March 31. Many teachers, parents and students spoke out against the idea of shortening their summer and alter pre-existing plans, saying they need a break after a rough year dominated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Narcisse held a series of public events last week to try to explain his ideas, emphasizing the importance of catching up the many school children who have fallen behind academically during the pandemic.

But the talks failed to quell the outcry. One teacher union, the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, on April 12 even staged a "sickout" that nearly forced several schools to close. Opponents packed a marathon school board meeting last week to criticize the proposal.

By the end of last week, Narcisse sent an email to school employees saying he would reconsider. By Monday, he retreated.

Instead, he proposed four new calendars modeled along traditional school years, which by Wednesday was narrowed to schedule finally selected.

"It is my belief that this will better meet the needs of the community while still providing important additional classroom time and professional development," Narcisse wrote in a memo to the board.

Narcisse spoke briefly Thursday about the controversy, saying he's happy to see so much public interest in an education issue.

"I look forward to this continued engagement in all issues that face our school system," he said.

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Board member Dadrius Lanus said the many meetings and debates, while hard at times, resulted in a better calendar.

"(I'm) thanking you, superintendent, for hearing our community, (and) thanking the board for hearing our community," Lanus said, "and my hope is we can continue doing that going forward."

Board member Jill Dyason offered an apology.

"I felt very badly that we are in the middle of a very difficult time and we made that more difficult for you than we had to," she said. "But we did step back."

Unlike the board meeting a week ago, when opponents packed the room in a hearing that lasted almost nine hours, Thursday's was much more cordial — though there was still scattered criticism.

Storm Mathews, who helped organize the April 12 "sickout,” said the calendar is better, but criticized Narcisse for focusing too narrowly on finding eight more instructional days somewhere rather than on the things that are really holding kids back.

"You got your eight days," Matthews said. "I hope your ego is satisfied."

Parent Jennifer Harding also had mixed feelings, saying she liked the new outlets for public involvement, but said the Smart Start plan is way too vague.

"I still think we're suffering from a lack of information and detail," she said.

That will change soon.

School officials say they will complete a formal application for Smart Start funding — federal COVID relief money — next week and will have a budget for the board to consider when it meets on May 7.

The cost of the revised calendar went down from $20 million to about $5 million by no longer starting the school year early. That will free up money for other purposes.

One idea is to increase the $25 per student that the school system gives classroom teachers to pay for supplies, or "materials of instruction." Narcisse said the idea is to allow teachers to spend less money out of their own pocket.

Teachers will get money directly in their pockets on June 8, right after this school year ends. Employees who worked the most will get the full $1,300. Employees who worked the least will get half that.

School officials sweetened the pot in recent days by creating a $1,000 stipend that will go to employees who took between 20 and 90 days of leave, as well as for part-time employee and substitutes who worked 120 days or more. And now, employees who retire at the end of the school year will be paid — the earlier proposed stipend would have left them out.

Board President David Tatman was pleased: "It looks to me to be a fair allotment and I'm particularly thrilled we're going to get it out this year."

Valencea Johnson, president of the parish Association of Educators, suggested using the savings from ditching the early start date to increase the approved $1,300 stipend.

"I heard the board members talk about how hard the teachers worked," Johnson said. "Let's show them that we really appreciate them."


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